What did Mary Poppins do on her day off after jumping with Bert into one of his chalk pictures? Extremely protective of her privacy, Ms. Poppins kept secret her doings while away from her young charges. Now imagine the extraordinary nanny slinging a camera round her neck, her bag loaded with film, making her own pictures as she set off for a day of shooting people and street happenings.

Vivian Maier, a real-life nanny, did just that for decades. She became a street photographer on her days off, going out accompanied only by her Rolleiflex and returning with images of the streets and the people she saw there—young, old, privileged or destitute, sleeping or working, famous or unknown. She piled her room high with old shoeboxes stuffed with negatives and undeveloped rolls of film. When she died in 2009, most of her images hadn’t been seen by anyone, including herself.

The grown children she cared for over 17 years remember her fondly. “She was like Mary Poppins,” Lane Gensburg, now 54 years old, told an interviewer. Though childless herself (as far as anyone knows), “She had an amazing ability to relate to children.” Maier arrived at the Gensburgs’ Chicago home in 1956, toting a huge carpetbag like the storybook nanny and wearing a long skirt over a lace petticoat that didn’t quite cover her no-nonsense shoes.

Like Mary Poppins, Maier took the children on marvelous adventures—the Chinese New Year parade, a famous cemetery, hunts for wild strawberries in the woods—and like her magical counterpart, she was extremely reticent about her private life. She received no calls from friends or relatives, and gave no indication of having a significant other, present or past. Phil Donahue, whose four sons she looked after for more than a year, remembers calling her “Mrs.” only once, for the affronted nanny corrected him: “It’s Miss Maier, and I’m proud of it.”

Maier allowed no one to enter her room, so no one knew or even suspected that the secretive nanny had taken well over 100,000 photos in the span of almost five decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s. In 1987, she warned the couple interviewing her that “I come with my life, and my life is in boxes.” Having a large garage, they weren’t worried—until Maier showed up with 200 boxes.

At some point, Maier put the boxes in storage, where they stayed until she stopped paying the rental fee toward the end of her life, and the contents of her six or seven lockers were auctioned off. This is where the enigma of Vivian Maier begins to unravel. Who was this talented photographer? How, or from whom, did she learn? How did her artistry flower? Why did she leave so many pictures undeveloped, so many negatives unprinted?

John Maloof, a 27-year-old real estate agent at the time, bought one of the boxes for $400 in 2007, hoping to find pictures of Portage Park, the section of Chicago about which he was writing a book. When he opened his newly acquired box, Maloof didn’t find what he was looking for. The box contained 30,000 negatives taken in Chicago from 1963 to 1965, with no name or hint of their author. He set the box aside for several months, until his curiosity moved him to examine the pictures. The flea-market enthusiast liked what he saw, contacted some of the other buyers from the same auction, and bought their boxes and negatives.

Maier’s art has transformed his life. Since that time, Maloof has taken it upon himself to curate, develop, scan, and archive Maier’s photographs. He has poured several thousands of his own money into the project, which includes maintaining a website, writing a book, and filming a documentary devoted to the artist. He’s scaled way back on his job, devoting four to five full days a week to Maier’s photography. Maloof claims all his initiatives to publicize and promote Vivian Maier are motivated by a love of art for art’s sake and a desire to give Maier’s art its proper due, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Maloof himself stands to make a very tidy return on his investment as Maier’s fame balloons.

Ron Slattery, an old friend of Maloof’s brother, was one of the buyers at the auction. He found Maier’s name pencilled on a photo-lab envelope and in 2008 he posted it with six of her photos on his website, hoping to find out more about the mysterious photographer, but to no avail. He tried again a few months later in 2009. Still no luck. Yet according to Slattery, Maier’s remaining boxes at a second auction brought prices 10 times higher than at the first.

By November 2009, Maloof had acquired 100,000 black-and-white negatives, 20-30,000 35mm color slides taken from 1952 to the mid-1990s and 2,000 undeveloped rolls of mostly color film. (In addition, he now owns at least seven of Maier’s cameras, more than one hundred of the movies she made, and 3,000 prints.) Not trusting his amateur judgement, Maloof decided to elicit the advice of professionals. In October, 2009, he posted some of the photos he’d developed on a street photographer’s blog hosted by Flickr. The reaction was immediate and decisive. The photographs caused a sensation, and news of their existence and quality went viral.

By the end of 2010, Maier’s work had been exhibited in Denmark and Norway, and published in Italian, Argentinian and English newspapers. Eighty of her photographs are currently on exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. “There’s about 15 photos from the 80 that we’re showing that I think rank up with anybody—any of the great names,” said the show’s curator, Lanny Silverman.

The size of the turnout for the show is unprecedented, with “dozens of times more than a typical opening” and “twice as many as the crowds at the best-attended events there” for an unknown artist, wrote Mark White, a blogger on the Flickr thread.

Yet the vast majority of Maier’s work still remains unseen. Last November, Maloof reported that he still has 90,000 negatives left to scan and several hundred black-and-white and 600 color rolls to develop. There are three other people with sizable collections as well. Jeff Goldstein at Vivian Maier Photography, for example, owns 12,000 negatives and 70 of her movies.

Slattery and Maloof had been googling Vivian Maier with no success until Maloof found her paid obituary in April, 2009. He was dismayed to learn that he might have met and spoken with Maier during those last two years of her life. Armed with the names in the obituary, Maloof was able to begin sleuthing in earnest. He tracked down people Maier had worked for and found her birth certificate in boxes containing her clothing and cameras. From his conversations and documentary evidence, he pieced together some facts about her life.

Vivian Maier was born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and an Austrian father. She spent her childhood in the U.S. and France, and returned definitively to the U.S. in 1951, when she was 25. She stayed in New York for five years, but what she did, other than take pictures, isn’t known, nor do we know why she went to Chicago. Her first employer there, Nancy Gensburg, believes that “She really wasn’t interested in being a nanny at all, but she didn’t know how to do anything else.” Except photography.

When she wanted to go somewhere, she’d take off without divulging her destination and leaving the family to hire someone temporarily until she returned. In 1959, Maier treated herself to a six-month trip around the world, photographically documenting her travels to Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Taiwan, Vietnam, Beijing, Egypt, Italy, France and New York. She had inherited a portion of a small French farm and apparently sold it to finance her journey.

Maier’s work includes portraits of children, couples and anonymous individuals. She’s also photographed people like Salvador Dalí, Richard Nixon, Nelson Algren and Christian Dior, in addition to quite a few self-portraits. Her pictures are arresting—she captures people revealing themselves, fondling the image with flawless composition, cropping, and lighting.

There have been many theories to explain why Maier didn’t develop so much of her work. To my eye, the most reasonable is that she simply didn’t have the means to do it. The Gensburgs enabled her to set up a darkroom and print with an enlarger. It was after the children grew up and Maier took another job that she began to accumulate undeveloped rolls. Some people have argued that publicizing Maier’s work after her death is an invasion of her privacy, that she evidently didn’t want anyone to see her work or perhaps enjoyed only the act of shooting pictures, not the result. But the fact that she meticulously inserted the negatives into labeled archival sleeves and carried her work with her throughout her life is ample proof that she valued what she had composed. We can regret that Maier didn’t live to see her life’s work valued and praised, but we can celebrate our good fortune that her artistry is becoming available for all to admire and enjoy.

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