Images tell Maier’s dual story

Few things fascinate like a double life. And nanny Vivian Maier had one.

Her workaday world involved minding the children of well-to-do Chicago families. But Maier’s private life was her own, closely guarded and hidden from view.

Until now. After Maier died at 83, she moved from obscurity to art world prominence.

In 2007 a Chicago auction was held of a mysterious cache of negatives found in an abandoned storage locker. In a serendipitous move, Chicago real estate agent John Maloof paid $400 for the images. Maloof essentially discovered the enormous output of this unknown nanny, who turned out to be a talented street photographer who took thousands of photos during her lifetime but never shared them with anyone.

Maier’s photographs have proved to be a treasure trove of a unique photographic sensibility and a window into 1950s and 1960s America, as seen through one woman’s eyes.

For anyone who romanticizes the 1950s or ’60s as a more innocent, less brutal time, Maier gives evidence to the contrary in her shots of disheveled drunks, the homeless, a man being hauled away by the police or the carcass of a dead horse and a road kill cat in city gutters.

Maloof has published a book, “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” featuring some of the exceptional black and white images Maier shot. And since that inspired initial purchase in 2007, Maloof has acquired more than 100,000 of Maier’s images.

Following his lead, an entire cottage industry of Maier interest has arisen, with gallery exhibitions, a documentary film in the works and the emergence of another collector, Jeff Goldstein, who procured his own collection of Maier prints and a catalog of 15,000 negatives.

Atlantans can see fascinating photographs drawn from the Goldstein archives that make up a small portion of Maier’s impressive body of work at Buckhead’s Jackson Fine Art, where 20 contemporary prints and seven vintage prints are on view.

Maier’s quirky, charming black and white images, shot with a medium format Rolleiflex camera, bring to mind such masters of the form as Elliott Erwitt, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and iconic French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the subject of an exhibition last year at the High Museum of Art.

Born in New York to a French mother, Maier grew up in France after her father abandoned the family when she was 4. Maier returned to America sometime in the 1950s to work as a nanny.

Though she’s been characterized as a slightly eccentric Mary Poppins-type who would whisk her young charges away to the Chicago stockyards, art films or a Chinese New Year parade for a field trip, don’t expect anything Disney from Maier’s work.

A streak of sophisticated wit is evident in images like one shot through a father’s milk-white legs as he hefts a chunky baby out of the ocean surf. In an equally funny image of large-meets-small, a chubby toddler sitting on a blanket hefts a baby doll above its head. The doll’s humorously sideways expression suggests a tiny creature caught in Godzilla’s clutches.

In addition to gravitating toward such funny views of daily life, Maier’s images are equally arresting for their formal properties, including a real knack for off-kilter compositions.

Maier never married or had any children, yet her images capture the unique spirit of children. She was clearly very fond of them. An image of a young boy, dressed up and sporting eyeglasses with a lens blacked out with paper — suggesting an injury of some kind — is a heartbreaker. He’s standing in the road and his vulnerability is palpable.

While some photographers render children cute, Maier’s images suggest their complex interior lives, a circumstance she no doubt learned while on the job.

City life is another favorite Maier theme, conveyed in images of a homeless man folded into himself, crouched on a city sidewalk.

Never dwelling in just one key, Maier also conveyed the joy and vibrancy of city life, in groups of African-American children playing on the streets or a humorous shot of an intertwined couple kissing on a beach, lost to the teeming crowds around them.

Though New York photographer Weegee famously made his elderly female subjects freakish, Maier offers a more humanistic treatment. Maier shoots these isolated, older ladies on city streets in frilly hats and fur coats or looking windblown and miserable in thin cloth coats and kerchiefs. Perhaps Maier saw a foreshadowing of her own future in these isolated women.

There is more evidence of Maier’s unique sensibility in her many clever self-portraits. A tall, simply dressed woman, Maier can be glimpsed in photographs of her shadow on the sidewalk, reflected in a shop’s security mirror or as a distorted reflection in a plate glass window. These canny self-portraits suggest any photographer’s hidden presence, lurking in the margins of their own photos.

Maier’s nanny vocation and photographic avocation were mirror images of each other. As a nanny, Maier had special access to the private lives of her employers. But such hired help is also kept at a distance. Maier was thus a three-fold outsider: a photographer observing life through the lens of a camera, a nanny raising other people’s children and a European transplant.

Maier retired from nannying sometime in the 1990s, but at least three of the children she cared for remember her fondly. John, Lane and Matthew Gensburg, whom Maier tended to growing up in Chicago, took care of their beloved nanny in her old age. They ensconced her in a nice apartment and ensured she had great medical care while she recuperated from a fall in 2008.

Maier died in 2009. She was described as a “second mother” to the Gensburg boys in her obituary, which helped Maloof track Maier’s identity down after his spontaneous purchase of those mystery negatives in 2007.

Like too many artists, Maier worked in obscurity when she was alive, and has only found fame after death. But her work lives on, providing fascinating insight into one woman’s unique vision of life.


On view

“Vivian Maier: Photographs.”

Through April 7. Jackson Fine Art, 3115 E. Shadowlawn Ave., Atlanta. 404-233-3739,