Self-Portrait in a Sheet Mirror: On Vivian Maier

Self-Portrait in a Sheet Mirror: On Vivian Maier

Self-Portrait in a Sheet Mirror: On Vivian Maier

The recently discovered photographs of Vivian Maier are tantalizing works of artistry and ambition.


Imagine being the kind of person who finds everything provocative. All you have to do is set out on a walk through city streets, a Rolleiflex hanging from a strap around your neck, and your heart starts pounding in anticipation. In a world that never fails to startle, it is up to you to find the perfect angle of vision and make use of the available light to illuminate thrilling juxtapositions. You have the power to create extraordinary images out of ordinary scenes, such as two women crossing the street, minks hanging listlessly down the backs of their matching black jackets; or a white man dropping a coin in a black man’s cup while a white dog on a leash looks away, as if in embarrassment; or a stout old woman braced in protest, gripping the hands of a policeman; or three women waiting at a bus stop, lips set in grim response to the affront represented by your camera, their expressions saying “go away” despite the sign behind them announcing, “Welcome to Chicago.”

Welcome to this crowded stage of a city, where everyone is an actor—the poor, the rich, the policemen and street vendors, the nuns and nannies. Even a leaf, a balloon, a puddle, the corpse of a cat or horse can play a starring role. And you are there, too, as involved in the action of this vibrant theater as anyone else, caught in passing at just the right time, your self-portraits turned to vaporous mirages in store windows, outlined in the silhouettes of shadows and reflected in mirrors that you find in unexpected places. You have to be quick if you’re going to get the image you want. You are quick—so quick that you can snap the picture before the doorman has a chance to come outside and tell you to move on.

There is so much drama worth capturing on film; you don’t have the time or resources to turn all of your many thousands of negatives into prints. Anyway, prints aren’t the point of these adventures. It’s enough to delight in your own ingenuity over and over again, with each click of the shutter. You’ll leave the distribution of your art to someone else.

* * *

On a winter’s day in 2007, a young realtor named John Maloof paid $400 for a box full of negatives that was being sold by an auction house in Chicago. The box had been repossessed from a storage locker gone into arrears, and Maloof was hoping it contained images he could use to illustrate a book he was co-writing about the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park. As it turned out, he had stumbled upon a much more valuable treasure: the work of a photographer who looks destined to take her place as one of the pre-eminent street photographers of the twentieth century.

Like all good stories, this one is full of false leads and startling surprises. Maloof was unimpressed initially by the negatives and disappointed that he hadn’t found any materials for his book on Portage Park. As he told a reporter from the Guardian, “Nothing was pertinent for the book so I thought: ‘Well, this sucks, but we can probably sell them on eBay or whatever.’” He created a blog and posted scans of the negatives, but after the blog received no visitors for months, he posted the scans on Flickr. People began to take notice, and their responses helped Maloof appreciate the importance of his purchase.

His growing excitement led him to take a crash course in photography, buy a Rolleiflex—the same kind of camera that had been used to capture the images on the negatives—and even build a darkroom in his attic. He tracked down other buyers who had been at the auction and persuaded them to sell him their boxes, ultimately accumulating a collection of more than 100,000 negatives and 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies and audiotapes, as well as personal items like clothes, letters and books on photography. A second Chicago collector, Jeffrey Goldstein, held on to materials he acquired from one of the initial bidders. But Maloof estimates that he succeeded in gathering 90 percent of the photographer’s archive.

At some point between 2007 and 2009, Maloof set out to identify the person who had taken the photographs, though this portion of the story remains murky. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Maloof was “sifting through the negatives in 2009 when he found” a name, that of Vivian Maier, “on an envelope and Googled it. What he found was an obit.” But in a discussion on Flickr, Maloof indicated that he had found Maier’s name earlier. He reported that he came across her name on a photo-label envelope a year after he’d purchased the materials from the auction house. He considered trying to meet Maier but was told by the auction house that she was ill. “I didn’t want to bother her,” he said. “Soooo many questions would have been answered if I had. It eats at me from time to time.” In April 2009 he Googled Maier’s name and found her obituary, which had been placed the previous day. “How weird?” Maloof commented on Flickr.

The obituary in the Chicago Tribune, posted on April 23, announced that Maier, “proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years,” had died peacefully. She was described as a “free and kindred spirit,” “a movie critic and photographer extraordinaire” and a “second mother to John, Lane and Matthew.”

Maloof had missed his chance to meet Maier and interview her directly. But he persisted in his detective work and soon turned up another lead: a Highland Park address stuck to the bottom of a shoebox, for someone named Avron Gensburg. More online searching led Maloof to Lane Gensburg, a Chicago tax attorney—the same Lane cited in Maier’s Tribune obituary.

Maier had worked as a nanny first in New York and then in Chicago, but her longest term of employment was with the Gensburg family. For sixteen years she took care of the three Gensburg boys—John, Lane and Matthew. It was the Gensburgs who had known Maier as a “free and kindred spirit” who led them on excursions around Chicago, and they knew enough of her passion for photography—Maier converted a bathroom in their house into a darkroom—to describe her as a “photographer extraordinaire” in her obituary.

Matthew and Lane Gensburg reconnected with Maier in the late 1990s. When they discovered that she was living on Social Security, they stepped in to help, paying the rent on her apartment and later moving her to a nursing home in Oak Park. After her death they scattered her ashes in the forest where she had taken them to pick strawberries.

The Gensburgs remained grateful for the care Maier gave them when they were children. In an interview with Chicago Magazine, Lane Gensburg described his former nanny as having “an amazing ability to relate to children.” Gensburg indicated that he wanted nothing unflattering said about Maier, not foreseeing how an offhand epithet would, for some, become the basis of her legacy: “She was like Mary Poppins,” he reportedly said, introducing a loving comparison that has been repeated less lovingly in subsequent accounts of Maier’s life. Maier may have left behind a huge archive of fascinating visual material that is inviting the world’s attention. But it’s not easy for Mary Poppins to be taken seriously as an artist.

* * *

As the story of John Maloof’s discovery spread, galleries began showing Maier’s work. There have been exhibitions in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, as well as abroad in Germany, the Netherlands, London and Norway. In a recent show in New York City at the Steven Kasher Gallery, contemporary gelatin silver prints made from negatives in Jeffrey Goldstein’s collection were being sold in limited editions, ranging in price from $1,800 to $3,100. A documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, is in production.

Headlines have introduced Maier as “Little miss big shot,” “a Chicago nanny,” “the secret shutterbug,” “a housekeeper.” Anthony Mason of the CBS Evening News reiterated Lane Gensburg’s comment: “There’s a slightly Mary Poppins quality to her,” he said to Phil Donahue, and Donahue concurred: “There is, now that you mention it. Everything but the umbrella.” In an article for the Associated Press, Sharon Cohen describes Maier as “a Mary Poppins” with a “distinctive” style, and adds that she was “a big-boned woman,” “her face was free of makeup” and “her clothes were matronly and usually second-hand. Her shoes were mannish.” Smithsonian magazine labels her a “camera-toting baby sitter” and reports that the children of Highland Park used to call her “bird lady” because of her odd clothing and gait.

Information about Maier has been gathered from the reminiscences of those who knew her only as an employee. Add it all together, and the public representation of Vivian Maier suggests that the most interesting thing about her is the veneer of freakish frumpiness. Her work has earned her comparisons to major American photographers, but the story being told about her life—specifically, the depiction of Maier as Chicago’s real-life version of Mary Poppins—threatens to diminish an appreciation of her art. The danger may best be summed up by a comment from Donahue, who hired Maier in the 1970s to take care of his children: “I once saw her taking a picture inside a refuse can. I never remotely thought that what she was doing would have some special artistic value.”

In the foreword to Vivian Maier, Street Photographer, edited by John Maloof and featuring images from his collection, Geoff Dyer approaches Maier through a consideration of her reclusiveness. “Not only was she entirely unknown to the photographic world, hardly anyone seemed to know that she even took photographs,” he writes. Though the Gensburgs knew enough about her passion for photography to describe her in the Tribune obituary as a photographer extraordinaire, and though Donahue’s youngest son remembers that she “would roam the neighborhood taking odd photographs in a getup” that reminded him “of Maria von Trapp,” this is not the level of recognition that an artist of Maier’s caliber should have enjoyed. While the story of this “closet photographer” may reflect “the unknowable potential of all human beings,” Dyer finds it “unfortunate, perhaps even cruel” that she went unrecognized through her life, and he goes on to describe her obscurity as “a symptom or side effect of the fact that she never married or had children, and apparently had no close friends.” That Maier might have thought of herself in much more positive terms—with pride and satisfaction—doesn’t occur to Dyer. He can cast her obscurity only as the equivalent of an illness.

At this point we can’t be sure why Maier’s work was never exhibited in public. We can’t know if she ever tried to show her prints but was rebuffed, and it’s not clear to what extent her limited financial resources restricted her ability to transfer her negatives to paper. It’s important to remember, though, that she carted her growing archive of negatives from one place of employment to another in hundreds of boxes—a means of preservation that served the same purpose, if in a bulkier form, as the fascicles sewn by Emily Dickinson to fasten together groups of her poems. And we have to consider the effect of her employers’ expectations. After recalling that Maier used to lock herself in the darkroom she’d built in his house, Avron Gensburg said, “We could never get in…. Not that we wanted to.”

Following the discovery of her extensive archive, people want to get inside that darkroom. There are many questions we’d put to Maier if she were still living. Noting the resemblance between some of her images and the work of Lisette Model, Walker Evans and other prominent photographers, Dyer wants to know whether the similarities are deliberate or coincidental: “Did she take certain pictures because, consciously or not, they resembled work she had seen in exhibitions or magazines?” Was she aware, Dyer is asking, of the photographers she seems to mimic? How much did she really know about photography?

Although only a small fraction of Maier’s work is available at this point, its strength and scope are already apparent. Yet Dyer suggests that because Maier didn’t participate commercially in the culture of her time, because she didn’t sell or exhibit her photographs, because her work “has not played its part in shaping how we see the world in the way that [Diane] Arbus’s has,” it should be relegated to the status of “visual echo.” At best, Dyer continues, these visual echoes serve a “useful purpose,” prompting questions about the status of the renowned and therefore more significant photographers who were her contemporaries.

Luckily, the history of art frequently diverges from the history of fame. But for Dyer, Maier is defined by her day job. He points out that as “that quintessential figure of Victorian fiction, the nanny (or governess),” she had a privileged access to the private lives of others. But he goes on to say that the way she made her living “permits the development of no gift other than observation,” a disconcerting conclusion that conflates Maier with her camera and relegates her to the role of passive spectator. As Dyer imagines her, Maier couldn’t help pointing the lens of her Rolleiflex at old ladies, for they were “prophetic representations of her own destiny: solitary, kooky-looking, wrapped up in overcoats.”

Turning from Dyer’s preface to the first photograph of the book, which shows a boy, boxing mitts at his side, staring brazenly at the viewer, makes for an odd experience. It’s odder still to keep Dyer’s sketch of Maier in mind while looking at the book’s final image—a self-portrait of Maier grinning at her reflection in a sheet mirror. From Dyer’s characterization of Maier as an unmarried “nanny (governess)” who never enjoyed the delights of fame and fortune and produced no more than echoes, images of brazen boys and beguiling self-portraits are not what we’ve been led to expect.

* * *

Jeremy Biles’s preface to Vivian Maier, Photographer, which reproduces images from the Goldstein collection displayed at the Hearst Galleries in New York City from July 2011 to January 2012, begins with the work rather than the life. Biles opens with an examination of one of Maier’s self-portraits, setting the tone by encouraging us to reconsider our first impressions and to look again at the image more carefully. In the photograph, Maier is pointing her camera at her reflection in a mirror inside a store. “At initial glance, the self-portrait appears straightforward enough. Lingering over the image, however, reveals layers of complexity.” And as Biles lingers he unpeels the image layer by layer, investigating the effects of composition and light and the implications of the word “Expressions” painted on the store’s front window and visible in the background of the image. “If self-portraiture is a form of self-expression, this photo indicates that for Maier, expression does not mean exposure. Like the word on the window, this portrait is an alluringly attenuated expression, as much about secrecy as exposition. Vivian Maier would seem to make herself an obscure focal point.”

The elisions and distortions that partially conceal Maier are themselves expressive, Biles argues. “Maier’s self-portraits consist in images of her shadow, her recognizable but faceless silhouette cast over beaches, sidewalks, or wooden fences. She is two people, divided within herself—her own shade and double, both visible and not.” Biles is careful not to try to explain away the paradoxes expressed by the photographs; rather, he sees paradox as a central, empowering element of Maier’s work. Maier puts herself on display and at the same time hides a portion of herself from the viewer, making, as Biles puts it, “the seemingly straightforward photo seductive.”

This is a far cry from Dyer’s claim that Maier’s photographs represent her own pathetic, kooky-looking destiny. In Biles’s estimation, there is nothing pathetic about Maier’s art. Her photographs have a commanding seductive power and are evidence of “the talent that defines great street photographers—a capacity to mingle intention and fortuity.” As Biles presents her, Maier had a supple sense of the expressive potential of a chance encounter, a capacity Biles labels blindsight, meaning not impaired vision but a “double mode of vision, at once conscious and unconscious.” Maier wasn’t just a keen observer; she was able to look out at the busy world and see more than could be seen. She saw “filtered-out minutia, slices of movements, things in the visual field that occur beyond conscious awareness.”

Biles does not ignore Maier’s life story. He mentions her oversized coats and broad-brimmed felt hats and invokes the word “eccentric” to describe her. But he also cites important experiences besides her work as a nanny, indicating that she seemed to have spent some time homeless, for instance, or that she traveled around the world. From the fact that she left the majority of her work in the form of negatives, he infers that she was far more interested in the practice of photography than in the product of the finished print. And he concludes that however self-effacing she may have been, her devotion to photography expresses a profound generosity: a willingness to “engage the everyday world with a sympathetic eye.” The portrait that Biles offers of Maier in his preface is characterized by that same sympathetic impulse. He calls her work “a gift” and uses the phrase “patent delight” twice in the space of three pages—once when he imagines what Maier must have felt when capturing “shapes, patterns, and dynamic congruencies,” and again in describing what admirers of her work can’t help feeling as the archive is brought to light.

* * *

“Watch the passing figures and await the moment in which everything is in balance,” Alfred Stieglitz advised photographers who dared to venture into the street with a hand camera. As proof of the virtues of patience, he offered his iconic picture WinterFifth Avenue, the result of a three hours’ stand during a snowstorm on February 22, 1893. Balance is one of the key rewards of Maier’s steady patience, and connects disparate elements in her photographs. She pays special attention to patterns on clothing and the relationship between shapes and space and light and shadow. The presence of sharp foreground figures is enhanced by the depth of background, in some instances blurred and mysterious, other times starkly defined. In one print from the Goldstein collection, a blind African-American man with a cup pinned to his coat strums a beat-up guitar; behind him two children stand looking off into the distance; behind them is a restaurant window with circular signs, one advertising a corned beef sandwich for $1.19; and finally, mingling with the restaurant’s signs in the plate glass is the reflection of the corner of a building across the street. It is a layered image with contrasts suspended in relation to one another, illustrating the quality of serendipitous balance that Stieglitz championed.

Of course, any generalizations about Maier’s work could change dramatically as more of her images are shared with the public and we learn about her education and influences. But at this point it would be hard to argue that she was unaware of the tradition of street photography. The nineteenth-century photographer John Thomson, who photographed clowns and card-dealers and workmen posting advertisements on London streets, seems an important predecessor for Maier. Weegee’s influence can be felt in a nighttime image of a man being dragged along a cobbled street by a policeman and another man, perhaps a detective. Maier’s photograph of two boys framed by a window—one of her original prints—could well be a deliberate allusion to Ben Shahn’s photograph from the early 1930s of two girls in a window. Maier seems to be paying homage to Lisette Model with her images of people photographed from behind. And it seems likely that she was aware when she took the photograph of a dead carriage horse of the subject’s previous treatments: Robert Doisneau’s Fallen Horse (1942), Paul Martin’s A Street Cab Accident in High Holborn. Overturned Cab (1894) and Charles Nègre’s Fall or Death of a Horse, quai Bourbon (1855–60). If, as Clive Scott has argued, these photographs are examples of the practice of “visual quotation,” then Maier’s image of a bloody horse splayed on the street adds a new quotation to the sequence.

The majority of photographs by Maier that have appeared so far are contemporary prints made from Maier’s negatives. Some show poverty and degradation, while others highlight life’s random humor. In one image, the hair of an elderly couple looks comically disheveled in the wind; in another, a man does a headstand in front of a sign advertising a strip joint while a girl beside him stands with one shoe on and examines the sole of her other shoe. Some images capture action in process; others depict the stillness of inanimate objects and motionless figures. And as Biles points out, many of the images have multiple frames and include shadows and reflections.

Maier’s self-portraits are as varied and intricate as the rest of her work. Her interest in multiple layers and patterns can be seen in the image accompanying this essay. Another suggestive self-portrait is the final image in Vivian Maier, Street Photographer. It contains her signature elements: we see one subject, a workman, from behind, and the other, Maier herself, straight on, reflected in a sheet mirror that the workman is carrying. The mirror is held at an angle, lending the image a cockeyed feel. It is an image that could not have been made without an ingenious sense of timing: Maier’s reflection would have been centered only for an instant, as the workman lifted the mirror from the truck. Yet the same evidence of ingenuity suggests more than a chance encounter. The workman is holding the mirror still, perhaps following Maier’s directions. And when one takes into consideration that Maier needed enough time not just to focus the image in her viewfinder, but to look up and smile, then the arrangement begins to look deliberately theatrical.

We can’t know the full story behind this self-portrait, or behind the many thousands of images left in a storage locker in Chicago. But we can look at the range of Maier’s work and see the tantalizing evidence of artistry and ambition, and we can look at the expression of the woman reflected in the sheet mirror and see her indisputable pleasure. This is no frumpy old bird woman looking at her own pathetic destiny. This is a woman who knows what she wants, who has chosen to do her work free of judgment and commerce, and who is in charge of the scene.

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