Nanny Cam

The Posthumous Fame of a Street Photographer

In an age when obscure talent strives for celebrity, it astonishes when real talent remains hidden. Vivian Maier’s obscurity was so complete that her first public notice was a death announcement: “Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last fifty years, died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane, and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire” (Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2009).

Vivian Maier was a nanny who cared for John, Lane, and Matthew Gensburg from 1956 to 1972. They remember her as a Mary Poppins figure—energetic, adventuresome, and definitely the adult in charge. When they outgrew their need for a nanny she moved on to other families, but the Gensburg boys never forgot Ms. Maier. In her old age they paid for her rent and nursing care. It was they who posted the death notice.

But that was not the end of Vivian Maier. When the fees for her storage units went unpaid and the contents were auctioned, “recyclers” found troves of photographs along with rolls of undeveloped film. One of them, John Maloof, admired the photos, but searched in vain for their creator until the Tribune death notice popped up on Google....

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.