Are you your job? That’s the way most casual acquaintances judge us: “What do you do?”
I’m wondering how Vivian Maier fell into being a nanny. She probably needed a job and had an affinity for children anyway. Maybe she thought that it would be temporary.

from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

She never married or had children of her own. But she took some of the finest pictures of children that I’ve ever seen.

Vivian Maier was a nanny who lived and worked principally in Chicago in the mid 20th century. Apparently, none of her acquaintances knew that she also took photographs of street life from about the 1950’s to the 1990’s. Or if people did know, it didn’t register as a significant activity.

I’ve avoided referring to what her friends knew. It looks like she didn’t have any. She was probably the sort of person who gets along well enough, maybe could shoot the breeze with a causal contact, but had no lasting relationships that we know of. No one has come forward, it looks like, and claimed that they knew her. I wish some of the children in her care would come forward and say: “She was my nanny!” because Vivian Maier was one of the great 20th century photographers of street life.

Look at Vivian on the cover of this book. It’s hard to write about someone of whom hardly anything is known. She’s left us the trail of her pictures, about 100K of them, and they were uncovered by accident. Fortunately, they were discovered, I think as stashes at one of those estate sales or auctions, by a critic and historian who was doing research for a book on an old Chicago neighborhood. Most people, encountering piles of these old negatives, would have considered them junk and thrown them out. Now John Maloof has become Vivian’s editor. I think Vivian would have been dumbfounded to learn that someday she would rate an editor. This is the first published work on her pictures. It’s sheerest luck that the negatives were not destroyed.

from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

Imagine taking photos as a hobby in an era when there was no internet sharing. When you had no family of your own to photograph. When there were no photography courses or schools to go to but you learned by trial and error. 100K of photos. 100K of photos? It must have been all she did in her spare time when she wasn’t watching the kids. I imagine her obsessive, the taking of pics addictive.

Imagine there’s no one to look at your pictures and say: “That’s a great picture.” let alone make a more informed comment. When I took up street photography as a hobby, I had JR to say: “I liked that picture.” or “You need to work on that.” or “What are you aiming for in that picture?” And JR has a Masters in Photography from RISD. That’s why we occasionally review photo essay books on this blog.

In all the biographies of artists that I know of, the artist had a conception of their audience. What did Vivian feel as thousands of pictures piled up with no one providing reinforcement? No peers to buy her a beer? She couldn’t have known that her true peers were master photographers, and they couldn’t have known her…a nanny who takes pictures in her spare time. Who are you? What to you do?

The self-portrait on page 8: Vivian stares into a circular mirror. Her clothes are plain or look like they are a uniform. Her hands rest assertively on her hips. There’s another circular mirror behind her, so we see her back and front in multiplying images. There’s a pile up of wrapped packages on the floor, maybe they contain her negatives. The ceiling shows a beam and a fragment of a fluorescent light. There’s a cheap wall clock with an extended wire painted the same color as the wall but that doesn’t help disguise it. The ceiling light is on. It’s 6:49…my guess…AM. Look at those eyes. And the closely cropped no-nonsense hair. The sturdy body that knows how to work hard. And look at how young she is.

The kid on page 11: In striped 50’s tee and slicked-down hair. What is he, 13? He’s down the corner from a crap town bar called the Minute Tavern. Can you imagine yourself going into a bar called the Minute Tavern? On his left a pile of ash cans on the street. You have to be tough on the street and this kid knows it. He glares a swagger into the camera. “Can I take your picture, kid?” Look at the equipment tied round his belt or held in his left hand wrapped protectively over by his right. Looks like: leather jacket, baseball glove, propeller of a toy airplane but the better kind that has a small motor. That’s my guess. Look at it yourself and see if I’m wrong. Did Vivian pose him for this picture? If he struck this pose by himself, that’s priceless.

from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

The apartment block on page 17: There are 10 people splayed out in this photo in front of an apartment building. Five windows show on a second floor that is nearly cropped off. The central window is open with the Venetian blind half up. The other windows have the blinds slanted partly open or shut. It looks like one window has a white shade, shut. All the windows look sooty like the blinds are about twenty years old. Looks like an Edward Hopper.

Nearly four windows show on the ground floor with a right-of-center doorway. The doorway may be right-of-center but that’s because Vivian has centered the people on the street instead.

On the rightmost windows two kids are staring out. One must be staring right at the camera. They are leaning on some bedding that abuts the window sill. I bet that room is their bedroom.

On the left there is one open window framed by some curtains. The curtains look cheap. The window closer to the door is filled with a buxom woman who is being shown something by a couple on the street who are right in front of her window, the chest of guy, who is taller, is higher than the sill. You can tell that this pair of windows are for the same apartment because the curtains match.

The guy is facing down, he is showing something, his hands are up but we can’t see what he’s holding because his back is blocking the view. The woman next to him, wearing nice 50’s or 60’s slacks is staring down at what he is showing the woman in the window. She has one hand out like she is pointing at it but again, we can’t see what it is, the guy’s back is in the way. The woman on the street resembles the woman in the window. Daughter?

In the center of the street a heavyset woman trails her companion, another woman who is of average weight. She probably trails because she can’t keep up. The more slender woman walks faster. The heavy-set woman is half laughing, the other woman is half smiling. I say that because if I look at the picture with my magnifying glass, the smiling woman’s cheek is arched like in a smile. The rest of her face is turned away so I can’t be sure.

There is an idle man, hands on hips, that watches them from the left. On the right three playing children complete the tableau. The boy rolls an old white-walled tire. Great picture. But I wish I knew what the couple was showing the woman in the window and I wish I knew what that pair of women in stage center were talking about.

The old woman in the vacant lot on page 46: It’s like a back alley. Maybe this is Chicago where they have alleys. A very long beat-up ladder on its side. A pile of battered window frames on the woman’s left. The woman is very low in the picture frame surrounded by tall brick buildings that look like the back of tenements. In her right hand, her cane. Her left hand protectively grasps her dark cloth coat. Maybe the coat is unbuttoned and she’s holding it shut. I bet it’s cold, there are some bare trees in the background.

This woman is alone. You can tell who has a partner and who doesn’t just by the look. Loners look as if they are surrounded by an arid desert, even if they are standing in a lush garden or a crowded bar. There’s something that looks like bedding or a stroller that’s in front of her at an angle but I don’t see a kid. Maybe it’s just abandoned junk.

from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

I grab my magnifying glass. The woman is really grasping a dark-colored scarf, clutched to her stomach. At the top it looks like the coat is held together by a pin. See if you can tell. That’s it! The buttons on the coat are missing maybe. Homeless woman? I’d like to think that I’m wrong and this old woman can go up to her flat and have a nice cup of tea on this cold afternoon.

Take a look at Vivian’s picture on the cover of this book. Take a good look. That’s the only picture I can show you. Bravo Vivian, on that half-lighted, half darkened shot. All we have left of her are the visual traces of her mind, of where she’s been and her photographic record, preserved more by luck than by design.

Photography traps people in amber, in the immense fixity of space-time. You can’t sense that when you’re in it, in what Husserl called the lebenswelt, the life-world, but you can sense it in a picture…being suspended in stasis in a particular place at a particular moment.

This indispensable photo book concludes dramatically with a series of Vivian’s self-portraits on black paper. The last picture is brilliant. Vivian has stepped outside into the light where she catches a workman carrying a full length pane of mirror slantwise. She snaps a picture of herself reflected in the diagonal. Look at her! She’s smiling! The only picture where I see her smile. She had only seconds to catch that picture. Look at the steady concentration in her posture! OMG, what cool!

I’m in love with our sister, Vivian Maier.