There’s No Place Like Home
Following the loss of Eugenie, Vivian Maier developed a serious interest in photography and with a simple box camera, began the daily documentation of her life. Study of a broad swath of initial images provides insight into her early adulthood and skill development, allowing for a much deeper understanding of her work. While Maier’s camera offered minimal flexibility, not even focus or flash, she had time and pocket money to devote to her craft. Her prints track a tenacious pattern of practice and experimentation, moving rapidly to advanced techniques using natural light, shadow and reflection. Frequently, she turned her lens to the quaint villages, angled peaks and meandering streams of the alps, so picture perfect, Julie Andrews could be expected to round the bend.
Haute Alpes, 1950-1951 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Vivian shot the same landscapes again and again, documenting changes from the movement of the sun and with the seasons. She trekked into the freezing alps to capture the transformations of winter—snowflakes gently blanketing the steep slopes and thick ice stalactites forming in the tunnels of trees.
Haute Alpes, 1950-1951 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Having spent much of her youth in the community, Vivian covered events as a participant. This acceptance enabled her to chronicle local happenings from funerals, to fussy baptisms, to pure as snow confirmation girls echoing frosted peaks. Even a baby lifting its oversized head was worthy material.
Haute Alpes, 1950-1951 (Vivian Maier, Goldstein Collection)
In the small alpine enclave everyone was family, real or pretend, freeing Maier to comfortably develop her close-up portrait style. It was as if every colorful character in France lived in this single valley. Vivian captured creased faces that replicated grooved town walls, an earth mother sprouting from a field of wheat and a caped creature more wizard than workman. A pretty farm girl’s wooly gloves look so authentic, its hard to know where they end and her lamb begins.
Haute Alpes, 1950-51 (Vivian Maier, Goldstein Collection)
Vivian loved animals, including them in portrait as legitimate family members. Invariably she found them in pairs or more, hilariously capturing kisses, yawns and other bits of action, like the rise of a goat’s ears that perfectly complete the distant tree line.
Haute Alpes, 1950-51 (Vivian Maier, Goldstein and Bulger Collections)
Photos reflected identification with the working class, they were Vivian’s relatives, neighbors and friends. There were repairmen enjoying a quick thumb wrestle on the road and a pig carefully stretched for butchering, like a patient ready for surgery. In a place where sheep outnumbered people, Maier shot the herd following in formation, ready to charge to assert proper place of majority. This was the beginning of her lifelong focus on laborers.
Haute Alpes, 1950-1951 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Of special attention were the pinchable alpine children with mismatched country clothing and ubiquitous berets. Above all, Maier was a lover and protector of the innocent, human or otherwise.
Haute Alpes, 1950-1951( Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Sundays were for journeys to other villages or further afield. At times Vivian had company, but often traveled alone. Out of necessity, she was independent, self-sufficient, and organized. When prints were developed in town, she carefully labeled them in an English French mix. One visit was to her maternal grandfather Nicolas Baille, at his farm on the outskirts of town where he had moved long before, rejected by the community for his treatment of Eugenie and Marie. Vivian photographed the old man at his homestead and then joined him “on the fence” for a family photo. This is the only image from her visit where Maier appears decidedly uncomfortable.
Grandfather Baille,1951 (Vivian Maier, Goldstein Collection)
Vivian’s early photographs, including the blurry images, underexposures and trial and error of repetitive series, show how intensely she worked. The quantity of images is staggering, as if she spent a decade instead of two years in the Alps. Her welcoming village provided the crucial opportunity to develop confidence, before pointing her camera towards the rest of the world. Her methodical experimentation suggests an informed approach, probably self-taught through books and exhibitions, with the encouragement of Jeanne Bertrand. By the time she left France, Vivian explored reflection, mirrors, and twins of all kinds, presaging the work of Diane Arbus. Most striking were the images of Vivian herself; whether lending her camera or producing selfies, a lovely woman emerges. One mermaid-like shot on a snowy beach captures her beauty and youth, having freed her long tresses from their traditional bobby pin bondage.
Vivian Maier, France, 1951 (Goldstein Collection)
While in France, Vivian successfully sold Beauregard. The property ultimately went to a neighbor for the equivalent of $33,000 today, more than enough to buy a new camera.
Vivian returned to New York having lead a sort of bifurcated life—rural and urban, important and invisible, deeply loved and tragically abandoned. She mingled among the rich but was raised by the poor. She belonged everywhere and nowhere. Back in the city, she began to forge her own path by advancing her photography and dream of traveling the globe. To self-fund her interests, she parlayed her love of children into steady employment as a nanny, photographing each family. The pictures show mostly happy people with houses full of lovely furnishings, friends and celebrations. During the first summer she worked in Southampton, taking advantage of her location to visit an Indian Reservation and children’s shelter. In 1952 she was employed at the Akin estate near Oyster Bay, the nanny for Gwen, a sweet 2-year old who grew up to be a photographer herself. Vivian shot and printed over a hundred images from her two months on their snowy, tree-lined lane.
Brookville, Long Island, 1952 (Vivian Maier, Goldstein Collection)
While there, she shot an atypical photograph of an elderly acquaintance looking up information on the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. Given Vivian’s background, it makes sense that the combination of feminism and alcohol intolerance appealed to her.
Temperance, 1952 (Vivian Maier, Goldstein Collection)
In her free time Vivian shot incessantly, trading French landscapes for cityscapes and street scenes. Her images became a study in contrast, reflecting her own life history. Anonymous in New York, she generally chronicled the lives of strangers. Her pictures represented a microcosm of the diversity and divergent inhabitants of the city, from the fashionable and wealthy to society’s underdogs. She was so prolific she touched every subgroup imaginable. Any subject could underscore the point, like the dozens of shots of Central Park’s distinguished businessmen in top hats, appearing more imposing than they likely were in life.
Men in Hats, New York, 1952 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Perhaps more frequently, she shot males who were the diametric opposite. The sleepers were unknowingly captured on park lawns, rock ledges and benches. They were dirty, ragged, drunk, strung-out or all of the above, oblivious to Maier’s voyeurism through eyes covered or shut. The images feel intrusive yet it’s impossible to look away. While a safe bet that many subjects would not want their picture taken, Maier prioritized art over privacy. These gritty images aren’t the expected subject matter of a new, 25-year-old female photographer, but on the other hand, any of them could have been her brother.
Sleepers, New York, 1952 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
The women of the park mirrored the males. Images of meticulous society ladies were abundant, but more often Maier pointed her camera towards elderly working women. They exuded beauty and truth in their tired faces, hinting at Maier’s own future. These were the maternal figures of her youth.
Working Women, New York, 1952 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Children continued as a favorite subject, not only those under Maier’s care but seemingly the entire Baby Boom. Her subjects were of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds, standing in for all the children of the world. An entire exhibition could be sourced just from babies in buggies.
Freed from family conflicts and obligations, Vivian accelerated her education in photography. In 1952, she invested in a top of the line Rolleiflex used by many professionals. She worked to become proficient with the fast, complex camera and tried many new ideas. She playfully focused on body parts—necks that appeared overly long or impossibly crooked. Women with mammoth chests, extra-wide behinds and flabby arms were shot by the dozens. She began to capture the decisive moment appreciated by many. All of mankind was photographed with insight and humor, although an absence of ridicule. Despite the fateful family hand she was dealt, Vivian Maier evolved into an accepting and open-minded adult.
More revealing than what she photographed during her last years in New York, was what she didn’t. There were few pictures of those her own age. It was as if the city’s population mirrored that of her own world—comprised of children, delinquent young men, the elderly and almost no one in-between. Even more striking was the omission of her mother who lived in the city for 25 more years. A series of three pictures, like the one below, taken in Southampton New York one day in 1951 are the only images found of her mother Marie Jaussaud among the 100,000 plus examined.
Marie Jaussaud, Southampton, 1951 (Vivian Maier, Sylvain Jaussaud and Maloof Collections)
Vivian’s father had become an engineer for Madison Square Garden and then the Alvin Theatre on Broadway. Berta also was employed, first as housekeeping supervisor at the Pierre Hotel and then as a Metropolitan Opera dresser. Charles Maier thrived in the theatre environment, enjoying daily brushes with top celebrities and backstage visits with musicians and female dancers. A 1948 article in the New York Times described how he escorted Ingrid Berman through a frenzy of fans when she starred in “Joan of Lorraine.”
It is not obvious how much time Charles spent with his daughter, but they had many interests in common. Both enjoyed the theatre, New York Times and beach, all frequently reflected in images. They were especially attracted to celebrity; Vivian liked to chase down the famous for signatures and photographs.
Shared Interests, Vivian Maier (Bulger and Maloof Collections)
After Grandmother Maier died, it is almost certain that Charles never saw his children again. He told Berta’s relatives they had gone their own way. Instead he doted on his pinschers and was once arrested for walking them without leashes and muzzles, causing a neighbor to faint. His apartment showed no signs of offspring—no photographs, letters, or calls. A nephew of Berta’s lived with them for a year and was so uncomfortable with the coarseness and abuse, returned to Germany when everyone else was trying to flee. Another nephew arrived soon after and Berta confided that her husband had breached her bank account and gambled away her money. The drinking and tirades continued, followed by apologies and outings in their brand new Mercury. One day the nephew witnessed Charles threatening Berta with a knife and joined the American army to get away.
During the remainder of the 1950s, Vivian’s life got even better as she used earnings to fund trips to Chicago, Texas, Florida, California, Canada and South America. Her brother’s life moved in the opposite direction, spiraling downward as the decade progressed.
The siblings were the flipside of one another from a character standpoint, but possessed many similarities. Physically they were tall, big boned and hearty. They were outgoing, liked to wander, and possessed a need to express themselves creatively. Pointedly, they both seemed frozen in adolescence, a time when they were happy and free to poke around the alleys of St. Julien or the Bronx with friends. Carl failed to carve out a life separate from his buddies and Vivian continued to enjoy the company of children most. A desire for one-on-one, peer intimacy never seemed to develop for either. Grandmother Maier once explained that her grandson, although eighteen, thought like a twelve-year-old.
Public records reveal that Carl wound up in Chicago before Vivian, at a State Hospital, from which he escaped in early 1952. A year later he turned himself in to a New Jersey hospital, in good physical condition but exhibiting signs of psychosis. He claimed he was an honorably discharged veteran, but couldn’t remember his service dates or numbers. The hospital treated him while awaiting background details from Charles Maier. His father apologized for knowing nothing about Carl and didn’t inquire about his location or condition, the rare parent who didn’t care if his child was dead or alive. Carl’s application triggered a tsunami of paperwork between Washington, New York and New Jersey as the status of his discharge was researched. Finally, fingerprints were used to discover the truth and veteran benefits were denied.
Fingerprints Filed at the FBI
Vivian’s brother didn’t surface again until 1955. Experiencing withdrawal, he checked into Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. Again, he sought benefits, claiming the dishonorable discharge was reversed. Again, he was found out and denied coverage. Tragically, Carl’s admittance record reveals that he had not worked since the war and was calling himself “John William Henry Jaussaud (Karl Maier).” The diagnosis was Schizophrenia, Paranoid Type.
You Can’t Go Home Again
Vivian’s life continued on a favorable course. In 1959, she embarked on the trip of a lifetime, around the world. It was unusual for a single young woman to undertake such an adventure alone; she didn’t just visit the capitals of Europe but exotic locales from Yemen to Shanghai.
Travel, 1959 ( Vivian Maier, Bulger and Maloof Collections)
Thousands of images resulted; she seemed to capture every baby in China and every painting in the Louvre. Documentation was so important to Vivian that she even recorded her own travel papers and all the brochures found along the way. Amusingly, one pictorial series shows a porter holding a travel guide, flipping through it page by page so Vivian could photograph the entire book.
On Board, 1959 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Vivian ended her travels in St. Julien, so eager for the homecoming she shot pictures from the vehicle that brought her to town. She immediately headed to the alps to re-photograph every mountain, stream, and tree from before. She dropped by the village to cover a funeral and visit her remaining family and friends. When she arrived at the home of cousins Marcel and Sylvain, they discussed the money borrowed by Charles Maier in the 1930s. Marcel demanded to be repaid and Vivian wanted to comply. Without funds, she offered her beloved Rolleiflex, but he rebuffed the gesture and there was no resolution. For the last time, Vivian’s parents destroyed her family connections.
Sylvain Jaussaud, back row, 2nd from left, 1959 & 2015 (John Maloof and Alain Robert Collections)
Before leaving, Vivian visited her aunt’s grave and photographed old family monuments that named her ancestors and those of her friends–the Jaussauds, Pelligrins, Bailles, Bertrands, and Lagiers. For history and drama, French cemeteries put others to shame. With not a cobblestone ignored, Vivian returned home. Sadly, she never again returned to her home in the alps.
Family History, Haute Alpes, 1959 (Vivian Maier, Bulger Collection)
Prior to her trip, Maier had worked for the Gensburgs in Chicago and this is where she returned. They became her new family, an opportunity to finally participate in a version of the American Dream. This cohesive, upper middle class household offered three eager boys who embraced Vivian’s sense of adventure. In turn, she exposed them to art, nature and off-limits intrigues of the city. All the while she recorded the minutiae of their lives–the homework, report cards, beach barbeques, the little victories and defeats. In the process she chronicled quintessential suburban life of the fifties and sixties as it unfurled in the Gensberg family room, with its distinctive cowhide sofa and drapes. It’s all there, the celebrations of life— birthdays with sugary cakes and toy soldiers, jittery rehearsals for school plays, and the daily laughter, tears and wrestling matches that make up the lives of little boys. The fairy tale ended when the boys grew up and a nanny was no longer needed. Vivian must have felt a deep loss. That the boys would go on to help her at the end of her life testifies to the authenticity of the relationship.
The Ones She Left Behind
During the 1960s and 1970s the remaining Maiers passed away. Aunt Alma died in 1965, leaving her money to the government rather than relatives; she despised her brother, had apparently given up on Carl and was not close to Vivian. She predeceased her husband, so the money became his and it was stipulated that only he attend her funeral. Joseph Corsan left the estate of $300,000 to his own relatives when he passed in 1970. Charles Maier passed away in Queens in 1968, after the sudden death of second wife Berta just one month before. He was so ravaged by alcohol and shaken with grief, he could barely sign for her ashes.
Charles’ Signature 1964 (left) and 1968 (right), a Month Before Death
Berta’s sister came from Argentina to arrange funerals, with no Maier relatives in attendance. She buried Berta’s urn in a Catholic Cemetery alongside a friend and then, most tellingly, threw Charles’ ashes into the air to blow away in the wind. The Ruthers had come to intensely dislike their in-law, angry he didn’t take proper care of Berta and that he gambled away their money. In his will, Charles specifically disinherited Carl and Vivian and falsely claimed Marie had divorced him in France. His $10,000 estate was split among Berta’s siblings.
Charles Maier’s Will
In 1975, Vivian’s mother, Marie Jaussaud, died in New York. She was destitute and alone, living in a welfare hotel riddled with prostitutes and drug-dealers. Both children were alive, but so distanced that there was no reference to them among her belongings. After four years of looking for heirs to her $360, the Public Administer closed the case. She is assumed to be buried in an unmarked, mass grave on Ward Island.
Marie Jaussaud Maier, Death 1975 & Estate Closed with No Next of Kin 1979
In 1967, brother Carl applied for a social security number in New Jersey and received coverage to live in a rest home. He was well enough to participate in the outpatient “Family Care” program. This is where, at long last, the only person who remembers Carl Maier resides. The facility’s owner recalls the very tall, pleasant man who always said hello. There was nothing about his outward appearance that revealed his inner issues. His demeanor was polite, almost formal, and he stood out for always wearing a sports jacket. Arguably doomed to a life of turmoil and pain from birth, he died in 1977 at the age of 57. He consistently said he never married nor had children, leaving no heirs. He was buried in Ancora Cemetery among the patients who had no one else.
Vivian continued with her photography, capturing Chicago’s every crevice. Experts have pointed to her ability to take just one shot of her subjects—one perfect shot— evidence of her evolved skill and artistic vision. Many of her photographs were “edgy” but this didn’t mean she herself was unhappy or disturbed. From the beginning she seemed to have a clear mission to record truth and find subjects that were compelling; that’s exactly what she did.
Her story is one of great fortitude, talent and intellectual resource that enabled her to rise above severe family constraints and forge an independent and fulfilling life. Her much described eccentricities can now be largely attributed to life events. The practical, dowdy way she dressed, her rustic cooking, directness and thriftiness were all typical of her French country heritage. She surely possessed a sensibility towards style as evidenced by the many images of well-heeled ladies with chic hats, textured veils and luxe stoles. Vivian cultivated her own look with sensible shoes, oversized coats and floppy hats that provided a signature shadow in many images. Beneath it all she was an attractive woman and exposed a willowy figure, perfect posture and enviable cheek-bones in her younger years.
Vivian Maier, 1954 (John Maloof Collection)
Vivian’s childhood experience explains other behaviors—the impenetrable façade and absence of close friends. Her parents lacked the ability to develop and maintain appropriate relationships and readily broke family ties. Their daughter was hard-wired to live life as a loner. In Chicago, Vivian’s secretiveness regarding her background was off-putting to those who knew her. She didn’t even share her name with street friends, thus they all called her Fifi. In hindsight, who can blame her? It wasn’t lack of truth as much as self-protection. How many upper middle-class families in tony neighborhoods will hire a nanny with a violent alcoholic father, unstable mother, and drug-addicted brother who lived in penal and psychiatric institutions? It’s as if one day Vivian concluded that family life just wasn’t for her, buttoned up her blouse and fled New York, sealing the door behind. Like a chaste Don Draper, she probably lived in fear of a family member landing on her suburban doorstep.
Vivian was secretive about her background, sharing it offered no upside, but that doesn’t mean she was private. As she moved through adulthood, she was consistently described as outgoing, bold, confident, opinionated and sometimes imperious. Recordings depict this same personality. In fact, she paid little attention to the privacy of others, all that mattered was getting the picture. Many of her subjects would undoubtedly be horrified. For Vivian, art trumped all. She simply pushed through life on her own terms, traveling the world and enjoying the arts, especially old movies. Her natural curiosity was filled through a wide array of books, even trashy novels. She cared deeply about political and social issues–war protests and Watergate were right up her alley—she took hundreds of images specifically related to the downfall of Nixon. She was perhaps the original media junkie, consuming and photographed newspapers, magazines, television shows, signs, letters–even pictures of pictures. She increasingly featured newspapers in her work, showing people buying, holding, reading, and crumbling them. Eventually, she started hoarding them, a response heavily correlated with emotional deprivation and identity issues. Aptly, photographing items that can’t be bought and stored, has been documented to serve as a substitute.
In the end Vivian was largely alone, sharing the plight of so many elderly people without relatives to provide care. She had no strong peer relationships–never in the right situation to meet people her own age to establish a connection or learn how to fit in. Cynical, jobless and destitute, she turned to street friends and past employers for help, and they supported her until she died in 2009 at 83.
Her life and images embodied contrast, and so did Vivian herself. She was full of contradiction—both old-fashioned and modern, in-your-face but removed, brusque yet nuanced, a fan of the intangible although a creator of the tangible. She was intensely focused on the process of picture taking and not much interested in the more concrete developing, printing or sharing of work. Her existence was transient but her camera, newspapers and books provided an essential connection. Pictures allowed her to capture and own small, elusive pieces of life and when desired, place herself in the action. Through photography Vivian Maier established her rightful place in the world.
The Last Picture