The photographer Vivian Maier worked for me for three years in the early 1980s, though no one knew she was a photographer then. She was in her late fifties, I was in my late thirties. I had a big house in Chicago, a busy husband, two children of six and eight, and a five-month-old baby, and I wanted to go back to work. It seemed to me that a live-in nanny might simplify our lives and so when I saw her ad in the local paper, I phoned her.
She spoke confidently, with a bit of an accent. Yes, she said, her background was French, and she made delicious crème caramel. When I asked how she managed children, she said she kept them busy and safe but left the coddling to their parents. I asked her to come to an interview. It was the end of August. A tall, imposing woman came up the front steps in black Oxfords and a black skirt, black jacket and wide-brimmed black hat. Her shirt was a brightly patterned cotton print, short-sleeved. Her hair was brushed back from her narrow face: a no-nonsense face, intelligent, observant, composed.
She didn’t fawn over the children, but spoke to each of them, including the baby. She said she didn’t believe in television for children and asked if we had a stroller; I said yes, and a pram. She said she would need them both. I showed her the house and the three attic rooms we could offer her. I said if she came to live with us, I would carpet the attic hallway and her bedroom. We would all eat dinner together, but I would do the cooking. She said she wanted to cook, at least on the days I was at work. I said I’d think about it. Then we talked about her salary. I asked what she expected and she said: ‘Well, I have to live.’ She asked for $175 a week, and she wanted me to pay all the social security, her share and mine. I agreed, feeling slightly outmanoeuvred. She had another request. She wanted a deadbolt put on the attic door before she moved in.
I could see her point: she wouldn’t want the children to get into her things when she was out. I asked what colour carpet she’d like; that surprised her. ‘Rose-coloured,’ she said. I wanted to know what we should call her. She said she always addressed her employers as Mr and Mrs So-and-So, but she wanted us to call her Viv. Why didn’t she want parity? She just didn’t, so Viv it was. On her way out, she saw the New York Times lying on the kitchen table. ‘Wonderful,’ she said.
Viv moved in on a Friday to a rose-carpeted attic with a deadbolt on the door. She had two or three suitcases, some bags and boxes, and a camera – a reasonable amount of luggage. Looking back, I marvel at what a plunge it was to hire her. But at the time, I felt enormous relief, and excitement too.
We quickly learned how much she cared about food. Not drink: she didn’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol, only water, or lemonade if we had it. She liked sweets. She made crème caramel from time to time but it was solid, nourishing food she cared about. When I made the first grocery list for our new household, I asked if there was something I could get for her. Canned peas, she said. Buy a case of canned peas, or two if they were cheap. She liked them for breakfast. Canned peas were full of nourishment. The next morning we watched her open a can and eat the peas with a serving spoon, standing at the kitchen window. She liked soup for breakfast too, always warm or at room temperature, not hot.
Viv wanted very badly to do our cooking. On my first day back at work she suggested that I give her ten dollars so she could pick up something special for supper. That evening, a great grey-white beef tongue sat on the dining-room table, lolling over the edges of the platter. The children stared. ‘Don’t even pass it to me,’ my husband said. If she had sliced it thin and served it with a sauce, it might have had a chance, but that kind of fussiness was not in her repertoire. She ate a lot of tongue by herself that week.
The next evening a pot stood on the table. I had approved a stew but when she lifted the lid, whole unpeeled carrots floated in a broth alongside hairy-rooted little turnips. There was meat underneath, but I don’t think we got that far. ‘I like to see what I’m eating,’ Viv said. My husband groaned.
The third night we had steak. We all liked it rare, especially Viv: she said she liked it quivering. But we weren’t going to eat steak every night. I got out a cookery book and made menus for the next fortnight. Viv thought my menu list was funny, just as she thought my grocery lists were funny, but from then on I wrote the menus, bought the food and said she had to do it my way. She protested, but not too much. At least she was doing the cooking.
Viv cared about food and she cared about clothes. Her formal ensemble of dark skirt and jacket with a print shirt never varied. The skirts and jackets were secondhand, trophies of much searching. When she found things she liked, she bought them and had them altered. She bought her Oxfords used as well, and plagued the cobbler near our house with demands for new heels, soles and laces, always at rock-bottom prices. It was getting hard to replace those Oxfords, and she had trouble keeping her old ones in repair. She had her shirts professionally laundered, and her skirts and jackets dry-cleaned. The standard she set for herself was expensive to maintain. Maybe that was what she meant when she said she had to live.
Viv’s manner with the children was businesslike but not unfriendly. She called the baby Monsieur le Comte and kept up a stream of chatter, often in French, as she spooned mashed sweet potato into his mouth. When he began to speak I was astonished to hear French as well as English. He said ‘hot’ in English and ‘juice’ in French. He said ‘chapeau’ and ‘pomme’, and one day said ‘la voilà’ when we were looking for his sock.
When the older children came home from school or when there was no school, the daily promenade began. Viv put her camera round her neck, the baby in his stroller, and off they went downtown or to the lake, often with other local children in tow. She liked to stop at the candy counter in the local department store, Marshall Field’s, where she passed out free samples until the manager told her she had worn out her welcome. She looked for bargains everywhere, especially offal: pigs’ feet, sheeps’ heads, liver, tripe. The children were horrified by those cuts, but she found them perfectly acceptable and very well priced. She didn’t buy them for the household though, after our adventure with the beef tongue.
She took photographs as they made their way down alleys and sidestreets, and accumulated treasures that festooned the stroller when they returned. Many of her finds – broken umbrellas, strangely shaped bits of wood or metal, old toys – sat outside on the patio until I quietly put them in the trash, but some we kept. One day they brought home some fuzzy hand puppets, and an enormous stuffed camel, a Steiff, Viv told us, which sat in our dining room for months. Our toddler climbed on its back and the cat liked to sleep between its folded forelegs and chin.
People in the neighbourhood noticed Viv. She cut an unsettling figure in her bulky clothing and men’s shoes, even – or perhaps especially – when she was surrounded by children. Her face was sometimes strangely shiny from the Vaseline she used each morning as face cream. She didn’t smile in public: I think she tried to hide her teeth, which were rather crooked. Some of my friends found her voice too emphatic and her presence intimidating, but I had no problem with it. She looked like a good person to have on your side.
When the children did silly dances, Viv would cry ‘La la! Ta ta!’ and pass them scarves or dishtowels to flourish. One day I came home from work to find everybody wearing 3D glasses, the kind they hand out at the movies. Even the cat was wearing them. Viv was taking pictures with my camera, and the children were laughing. At birthday parties she coaxed the guests into making hats out of discarded wrapping paper, and took snapshots. I always had the film developed, so we have lots of her photographs of the children: our daughter posing as an Egyptian, a gang of kids in Halloween costumes, eating birthday cake with icing all over their faces, or rollerskating on the sidewalk in bathing suits and tutus.
Sometimes she let slip a detail about her life. She said she had come from France to New York City with her mother, just at the end of childhood. I asked her once what had brought her to Chicago. Instead of answering, she changed the subject; apparently she’d once spent a whole year travelling the world on a freighter; her employers gave her time off to make the trip. Was that when she came to Chicago? But the story was over: I never learned why she settled in Chicago. She once told me that her first job had been cutting and sewing in a Manhattan sweatshop. The best thing about the job was that it was in the garment district. On Saturdays she wandered around all day, looking at the latest fashions and fabrics. I asked her why she left the job, and she said one day it occurred to her that she never saw the sun. It’s easy to guess that she needed freedom and daylight to take photographs, but she didn’t say so.
Viv looked at the New York Times every day and asked me if she could take the paper upstairs when we were finished with it so that she could cut out articles she liked. She was most interested in headlines that affirmed her general assessment of humanity: crime-ridden and driven by folly. Her favourite expressions were: ‘You have to laugh’; ‘If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry’; ‘Idiots, pure and simple’; ‘Robbery, pure and simple’; ‘Criminals, pure and simple’. She saw life in black and white, with no room for other points of view.
She took a cold shower every morning. She said she’d started this routine when she had a very warm bedroom, and the cold shower was invigorating. But the attic in our house wasn’t so warm, and she mentioned one day that after her shower she felt chilled. I suggested that she take a warm shower instead: cool room, warm shower; warm room, cool shower. ‘Hmph!’ she said. She hadn’t thought of that.
Another day she came into the kitchen agitated. She had just read an article about chipmunks: as soon as the females stop menstruating, they die! The unfairness! I was taken aback. ‘Viv,’ I said, ‘turn it the other way around: chipmunks menstruate until the end of their lives.’ ‘Hmph!’ she said. And then: ‘That’s an idea.’
As far as I can remember, that was the only time we spoke of menstruation. Viv didn’t like to speak directly about bodily functions. Her opinions emerged at the edges of other discussions. It was clear she felt men had an unfair advantage. Who got pregnant? Who took care of babies? Women, of course. Who left messes for others to clean up? Whose clothes were better made and more durable and less expensive to clean and maintain? Who perpetrated crimes of sex and violence? Men.
She once told us about a man she had seen on the street in a sleeveless undershirt, his stringy armpit hair hanging down like moss from a tree. The children howled in disgust but I was bemused: what was the story about? I think she found the man’s body hair both disgusting and fascinating, an example of male indifference to propriety and at the same time a freakish wonder.
The first Christmas Viv worked for us, we took her to northern Michigan to spend the holiday with my husband’s family. We always walked between my mother-in-law’s house and our house, about half a mile away. I had imagined Viv would enjoy the walk but I was wrong. She stumped along behind the children in her boots and heavy coat, looking fed up and bewildered. When we got back to our house, she sat bolt upright on the living-room floor and muttered ‘God, oh God’ to herself. On her day off, we drove her to the nearby town so she could shop and explore, but she spent only an hour or so there before phoning to be picked up. There was nothing to look at, nothing to buy, just little stores, little houses, deep snow and endless winter woods. Nothing she wanted to photograph.
That was the only time she spent Christmas with us.
Summer vacations in Michigan were more successful. Some of the best photos we have of ourselves and the children Viv took there with my camera. She also took some with her own camera, very few of which we saw, though she gave us two as gifts. In one, our naked toddler is watering flowers with a plastic watering can. In the other, our older son is getting his first haircut at a barber’s shop; I’m hovering next to him, showing the barber where to trim.
In the winter of 1984 our family business was going well, our youngest child was nearly three, no longer a baby. Should we take on a foster child? Viv hated the idea. The legalities would require her to have a medical and see a dentist, which she refused: they were all quacks, pure and simple. A foster child might need some special care, would Viv help provide it? She wouldn’t say. Finally one evening she threw out her arms and said: ‘If you want to take care of somebody, why don’t you take care of me?’
In the end we decided against fostering. But there was tension in our household after that. Our older children were tired of touring the neighbourhood with Viv after school. One afternoon, they wandered away from her and found their way home by themselves. No harm was done but it was a frightening experience for Viv, and a humiliating one. She was going to have to adapt to a household with older children in it, and it wasn’t clear that she could.
And there was more. One warm evening when my husband and I came home from work, we found everybody hot and languishing on the screened porch, where Viv had pulled the door and all the windows closed. We hurried around, throwing everything open to get the breeze in, while Viv exclaimed: ‘Don’t do that! You’re letting out the heat! You’re going to miss that heat when winter comes!’ Of course, we knew that she couldn’t bear to throw anything away. She told me once, with pride in her voice, that she had 12 broken Leicas in storage, valuable to anyone who could afford to fix them. But hanging onto warm air? That fell into another category.
I hadn’t been in the attic for almost three years, not since Viv came to live with us. But I needed a suitcase that was stored up there, and she wasn’t home. I found my key to the deadbolt and went to get it. The attic was full of newspapers. Her little sitting room, bright with windows looking onto the treetops, was stacked shoulder-high with them. Her rose-carpeted bedroom was impassable except for a narrow track running from bed to bathroom. She had made a space on the floor of the storage room under the eaves for some books and clothes but the rest of the attic was crammed with newspapers. She wasn’t cutting out the articles she liked and throwing away the rest; she was hoarding everything.
One Saturday not long afterwards, on Viv’s day off, a neighbour asked if we had any old papers. He was painting his bathroom and needed to cover the floor so I gave him an armful from the pile by the kitchen door. Viv noticed as soon as she came home. Where were her newspapers? What had we done with her newspapers? ‘Viv,’ I said, ‘they are my newspapers, not yours. And there are way too many newspapers in this house!’ She was too upset to argue. She went upstairs and locked herself in the attic for the rest of the evening.
I thought we could work through it, find a way to keep going. My husband said no, she was getting too nutty. At the kitchen sink the next morning, when nobody else was around, I said: ‘Viv, I think it’s time for you to find another job.’ She stepped back and said: ‘You do, do you?’ It almost seemed like she had been expecting it.
We took the children for a long weekend in Michigan when she moved out. I didn’t see – I didn’t want to see – what she did with the newspapers. Did they go into storage along with the Leicas? Now that she was disappearing from our world, another piece of the puzzle slipped into place. She needed money not so much to live, but to pay for the life that was behind her. She kept it in trunks and boxes and suitcases in storage, along with the newspapers that recorded those times.
I didn’t see her again. Or not until 2011, two years after she died, when her name and picture started appearing in newspapers and on TV. The contents of her storage lockers had been auctioned off, and bought up by some amateur collectors who found a number of prints, along with more than 100,000 negatives and 3000 rolls of undeveloped film. What they saw looked pretty good, so they started releasing some of the images onto the internet. Gradually, the pictures attracted the interest of street photography enthusiasts, and then of people like Cindy Sherman, and then of high-end gallerists and collectors.
It wasn’t long before they were recognised for what they were: an extraordinary collection of photographs, spanning fifty years, of the streets of New York City and Chicago and beyond, of children and tramps and construction workers and society girls and the graffiti on the walls. She had learned some things from that time in the garment district. The photos show her fascination with pattern: light and dark, sun and shadow, objects and their reflections, fabric patterns too. She loved to juxtapose one texture against another: polka dots against stripes, a lady’s furs against a bum’s tattered jeans. In some of the pictures she is visible herself, reflected in a mirror or a window at the edge of the frame, always observing, waiting for her moment.
We can’t assume that she left the canisters of film in boxes only because she couldn’t afford to have them developed. We can’t assume that she would have printed more of her photographs if only she’d had a darkroom and the money for supplies. My husband once asked to see some of her work. She showed him six or seven prints, and when he wanted to see more, she refused. She said she couldn’t risk it; people would steal her work. The current dispute over the ownership of her images suggests that she had a point. Viv knew how good her photographs were: those she did print proved it to her years before she began tossing canisters of film into cardboard boxes. Viv hoarded her film because it preserved her life as she had lived it.