Vivian Maier’s Jewish Chicago
The recently discovered street photographer trained her lens on my family—and a lost, genteel world
A few months ago, I went to the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York with a friend to see a show of the work of the street photographer Vivian Maier. “These pictures are from Chicago,” my friend noted. “Recognize anything?” I glanced ahead, both amazed and puzzled.
“Well, that’s my elementary school, Braeside School,” I said. “That’s my mom with the big, white handbag. That’s my brother at the fence. And I’m pretty sure I know the little boy, the one about to catch the rubber playground ball.”
By my calculations, the ball, caught in the viewfinder of Maier’s Rolleiflex on Field Day, June 1961, has been suspended for 51 years. Like the vast majority of her negatives (it’s possible she took well over 150,00 pictures), it wasn’t printed in her lifetime. I snapped an image of the picture on my iPhone, forwarded it to my sister in Chicago and my brother in Bangkok; then I took a look at Self-Portrait in a Checkered Dress, the tall, straight-backed figure of the photographer with her boyish and parted hair, narrow face and narrow eyes, long and equine nose, and neutral but formidable expression, which is when I realized that I had known Vivian Maier.
That is, I knew her as well as anyone I grew up with would have known her. At the end of her life, when she was too impoverished to pay bills for rented storage space, the contents—trunks and suitcases, cardboard boxes and plastic bins filled with moldering shoes, newspapers and magazines, rope, bins of negatives, documents, and scavenged mail—were auctioned off in lots. One of the buyers, an amateur historian named John Maloof, began to look through the materials he had purchased. With a little detective work he was able to trace it back to Vivian who recently had died. When he posted some of the images online the response to the photographs was extraordinary. In the last five years there have been exhibitions of her work around the world, from New York, to Chicago, Santa Fe, Houston, London, Oslo, and Hamburg, and a new book publishes this week. Even with all this publicity, few facts about her life are known, aside from the antiseptic details that can be gleaned from public documents, ship manifests, census reports, obituaries.
In Highland Park, where she worked for our friends the Gensburgs, living in their house from 1956 until 1972, Vivian was one of the outsiders—housekeepers, maids, nannies who came into our tight, predominantly Jewish community and ensured it wasn’t hermetically sealed. These were women who brushed our hair, refereed our sibling fights, and supplemented our education, describing what it was like to be hungry enough to eat grass or desperate enough to lance a festering boil. Sometimes they stayed on for years and became part of the family and part of the neighborhood.
That was the case with Vivian. I remember the mixture of feelings—curiosity, respect, and frustration—she elicited because she was so intelligent, odd, and mysterious. With her brimmed hats, vintage clothes, and hiking boots, she may have been the closest anyone came to Edward Gorey’s Doubtful Guest. For years she seemed ubiquitous, riding her bicycle with a wicker basket along Sheridan Road and its adjacent streets—prim, old-fashioned skirt, leather shoes, camera strung around her neck—sometimes a dog chasing behind. Most of us would still recognize the steady, low, Alpine-French inflection of her voice. Outside the Gensburgs’ home, she had no affect. She didn’t make eye contact and didn’t smile; though it’s clear from her photographs she had a sense of humor. Even as children, we could see her camera was both a barrier and a window, something like the magical binoculars in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. When she showed up, as she did that Field Day in 1961, we let her look in. We let her look in because we knew her and the limitations of her personality. In this way, in our closed community, Vivian could establish an intimate vantage point, something that enlarged her work as a photographer and perhaps mitigated the loneliness that encased her.
Vivian Maier was born in New York in 1926. Her father’s family had immigrated to the United States from Austro-Hungary in 1905. Her mother, who was French, came in 1914 “as a maid.” They would have been counted as the working poor. Her paternal grandfather was at one time “a gardener at a hospital” and his wife “a matron at an orphanage.” At various junctures, her father was “a salesman at a grocery store,” “a mechanical engineer in a candy factory,” and “a steam engineer in a government house.” What amounts to a team of researchers hasn’t yet located a single person who can recall Vivian or her family in New York. We know she had an older brother, but she and her mother only lived with him and her father off and on. Were her parents incompatible? Were they separated for financial reasons? What happened to Vivian’s father and her brother? What schools did they go to? During her lifetime, Vivian certainly wouldn’t have offered the answer to these questions. In the 1930 census Vivian and her mother were documented in the household of Jeanne Bertrand, a photographer with a history of mental illness who came from the same canton as her mother, St. Bonnet-en-Champsaur. During the Depression years 1932-1938 Vivian and her mother lived in the Champsaur, and they returned in 1949 when Vivian inherited from her great-aunt a share of a small farm in Alsace. For a short time in New York, she took a factory job.
In 1951, following in her mother’s footsteps, Vivian began working as a nanny—in those days, we called it a “child-nurse”—first in Southampton, then in Los Angeles, and finally in the Chicago area, in order to have a roof over her head.
Not everyone in the Braeside area came from the same background but, in general, we were nonobservant High-Holiday-and-Sunday School-only Jews whose businesses, social circles, and family circles intertwined, sometimes going back a few generations in Chicago. Our families and family businesses were mostly prosperous. Our parents experienced homegrown American anti-Semitism in high school and college, but we were too close in time to the Holocaust and the war to understand how those experiences had affected all of us. Most of the men had served in the military. Some of them married women from other Jewish communities, southern Jews from Atlanta or Charlotte. A few married non-Jewish women, which was noted but not stigmatized. A lot of our parents had known each other as children, at summer camp, or confirmation class. They had sayings about one another: “Marvin Mervis makes me nervous.” In the spirit of modern American well-being and acculturation, it wasn’t unusual to see Christmas trees and Easter-egg hunts in the neighborhood. Our parents had grown up listening to the Dorseys and Frank Sinatra, they subscribed to Life, Look, Time, and The New Yorker, smoked Viceroys and Lucky Strikes, set icy tumblers on leather-tooled coasters. Nobody went to school on Yom Kippur.
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