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Vivian Maier’s Jewish Chicago: A Reminiscence, as a New Doc Tries to Revive Her Story

The recently discovered street photographer trained her lens on my family—and a lost, genteel world

Frances Brent
October 10, 2012
(Vivian Maier, courtesy of the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection/ Steven Kasher Gallery)
(Vivian Maier, courtesy of the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection/ Steven Kasher Gallery)

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.

Vivian was clearly restless in our world, but she lived in Highland Park for 16 years, and her camera (sometimes more than one) was always around her neck. I have two memories of her that stand out, from when I was 7 or 8 years old. The first is from a beautiful, warm afternoon and someone—maybe Vivian—had the idea to enter the gates of Ravinia Park, which wasn’t far from where we lived. I was with a group of children, and we were running like crazy. When we exhausted ourselves, we collapsed on the grass near a garden with a fountain and Vivian was at arms-length from us, looking down into her viewfinder. I remember thinking it was strange because she was very still and didn’t look up, she didn’t look up at us. At the same time, I remember being perfectly comfortable in her silence. The second memory is of her ringing the doorbell to our house. I was beside myself with excitement. Vivian climbed the stairs, walked down a little hall and into a bedroom. She had come to look at a camera, to examine the mechanism. Maybe the camera was broken or needed adjustment. She said a few words in her deadpan voice, turned around, went down the stairs, opened the door, and walked out.

Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, the authors of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, have suggested that shooting pictures may have been Vivian’s way of keeping a diary or remembering what she saw. My sense is that Vivian, a shutterbug in the purest sense of the word, depended upon the process of framing—setting up a composition in the viewfinder and shooting—in order to navigate the world. Of her huge oeuvre, photographs ranging from Champsaur to the Bronx, to Maxwell Street, and Shanghai, the images from Highland Park represent only a fraction of her output. But they’re special, characteristic because of the architectonic set-up and balance, the photographer’s consummate understanding of the play of light and shadow, her self-confidence and interest in the way character and story can be revealed in an unrehearsed instant. Her subjects can be sober or humorous, and they’re often plunged in thought. The moments she captures are invariably weighted with authenticity.


I’ve looked at the images on the contact sheet from Field Day, 1961. Sometimes ungraceful or unflattering, the pictures show people Vivian would have known from the neighborhood. Photos can sometimes bring back noisiness. These catch the commotion, the frantic business of the day. More pointedly, the photographic eye notices how different parents attend to different children. A little boy tipping his empty soda bottle succeeds in getting the last drop from his straw while his mother and father look on with smiles. An exhausted little girl scowls into the sun, and her mother turns away. A group of first-grade boys dribble with the playground ball, posturing like professionals, and Vivian experiments with the photographic challenge of catching the action. In photos of the Gensburg boys you sense her gentle humor in their tidy crew cuts. There’s a wonderful picture of 6-year-old Johnny, one hand holding what looks to be a powdered doughnut to his mouth, the other gripping a coke bottle, crumbs on his cheeks and nose. Someone (again, maybe Vivian) had tucked a paper napkin at his waistband and tied the string of a balloon above his elbow. I think I have a trace memory, puzzling at the sight of him in his old-fashioned pedal pushers, balloon string on his elbow.

Vivian’s photographs get to the essence of a fleeting moment in our particular community in the middle of the last century—its affluence, insecurity, and instability—a feeling, perhaps, of having arrived and of being lost. They’ve taken me back to names I haven’t thought about in years—Audrey Naiditch, Lorry Goffen, David Saltiel, Jane Rosenthal, Joel Mann, Stan Tokoph, the first-grade teacher Mrs. Picchetti, our gym teacher Andy Voisard—and things—chiffon scarves, madras shorts, saddle shoes, bushel baskets, cotton gym suits with rust-proof snaps and elasticized legs. There is a panoramic shot of the whole crowd of parents and children massed across the blacktop and another shows booths with easels and tubs of water arrayed at the wall of the school building. Some of us older children were managing the games. One of the teachers, maybe our principal, Mr. Beam, was dressed as a clown, and the parents’ organization had arranged a hayride. It all seems to have come out of Saturday Evening Post except it was a little bit of a ruse suggesting that we, like a lot of American Jews in the early 1960s, were just slightly uncomfortable with borrowed tradition.

The photograph of my brother I saw at the Kasher Gallery tells something of that story. Like many of Vivian’s images, the formal composition is meticulous. The background architecture, the school building, a chain link fence, as well as chalk lines left from a relay race, supply a grid for the adults and children informally grouped in the schoolyard. Vivian’s photographic eye is neutral. She focuses on a ball traveling toward John Gensburg’s outstretched arms. The camera lands on my mother with her fashionable ducktail haircut and great summer pocketbook. The woman next to her holds what looks to be a pile of handbags and crosses her knee for balance, raising her heel out of her pump. Avron Gensburg sportingly repeats the gesture. Joy Richman smiles at his side, holding a cigarette and placing her hand on her hip. Her daughter turns in another direction. My mom and her friend are lost in separate thoughts. Only my brother aims his gaze directly into the camera. This is a delicate moment when people who know one another well are together but not joined, and it says something inarguably truthful about the precariousness, fragmentation, even a feeling of loss in our community.


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Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.