A Fractured Archive
Eighty-one-year-old Vivian Maier had five storage lockers in a warehouse on Chicago's North Side. But by mid-2007, she had stopped paying the rent.
Within the previous year, the six-story storage facility had changed hands for the first time since it was built eighty-five years earlier. As with Vivian Maier herself, the building's heyday had passed; a no-frills business model had sullied the pristine marble welcoming area with do-it-yourself packaging materials. Only vestiges of the building's former elegance remained. Originally known as Hebard Storage, home to a full-service moving company, the business was now called Metro Self Storage.
Did the change in name confuse Maier and cause her to stop sending payments? Maier likely had not visited the facility lately. The new owners had spent $5 million to acquire the building and nearly a half-million dollars more modernizing it. Had the rental fees increased beyond Maier's means? Three of her units were small at five by five feet, but two were larger, each five by ten feet. By August 2007, a bright yellow "Now Open" banner had been fixed to the building's pale-gray front. A second celebratory banner offered special storage rates at a new telephone number. Did Vivian Maier try to phone the old, now disconnected number? Had she been given a special rate when she moved her possessions in? In the 1970s, she had lived in the same lakeside high-rise building as the daughter of Hebard Storage's founder. The new owners may not have known or cared about the business's history. Following the company's policy, when Vivian Maier's payment was thirty days past due, an employee affixed a padlock over each of her units' secured doors and then removed her locks. After opening the doors for a quick look at the lockers' contents, the manager placed two public notices, a week apart, in a local newspaper. By law, the storage company was required to list the renter's name and a brief description of the stored items.
As on the popular television shows Storage Wars and Auction Hunters, Vivian Maier's possessions attracted a motley assemblage of enterprising bidders hoping to reap profit. Roger Gunderson, owner of RPN Sales & Auction House on Chicago's Northwest Side, had attended many of these events to provide material for his resale business. Typically, he and other fortune hunters would size up contents from a unit's open door: look, but don't touch. Storage auction aficionados have different criteria and preferences. Some look for flat or old boxes that may contain important paintings or antiques; others look for easily resalable furniture. Sometimes nothing looks appealing, and a bidder stays on the sideline waiting for the next door to open.
One particular item grabbed Gunderson's attention, propelling him to purchase the contents of all five lockers: an old traveler's steamer trunk covered in stickers, one from Paris. Its romantic aura captured his imagination. There was not much other interest in Vivian Maier's possessions that day. Gunderson took everything in the five units for $260.
Beyond that, Gunderson didn't know what was in Vivian Maier's hundreds of boxes — or what they weighed. When he began loading them into his sixteen-foot truck, able to support nearly two tons of cargo, he didn't expect to jeopardize its suspension. By evening, he had hauled two-and-a-half truckloads of what he described simply as "heavy paper." Gunderson dragged, lugged, and hoisted carton after carton of books and magazines, along with boxes filled with personal items like bills, documents, and correspondence. Contained within some of the dozens of casually stacked cardboard boxes were thousands of photographs of all sizes, perhaps one hundred thousand negatives, countless yellow Kodak boxes of slides and motion picture reels, and more than one thousand rolls of undeveloped film.
* * *
Everything changed for Vivian Maier in the summer of 1952. The twenty-six-year-old Maier roamed Manhattan's streets and parks, sometimes alone, sometimes with the child she was looking after. When accompanied by the little dark-haired girl, she mostly stayed around the girl's home on Riverside Drive, or they went to Central Park. But when she wandered solo, she traversed far-flung neighborhoods. That July was particularly memorable for its extended heat wave; the temperature stayed above eighty degrees from the twelfth through the twenty-fifth. Vivian Maier had gotten a new camera right before the heat wave struck, one like the professionals used, a Rolleiflex. She now looked like a serious photographer. From Maier's earlier cameras, and her understanding of measuring light value and the relationship between the camera's shutter speed and aperture, the transition was easy; her earliest daytime exposures were spot-on.
* * *
Roger Gunderson began sorting through Vivian Maier's personal effects. As usual, he "weeded through" the boxes and threw out personal items, such as bills and other documents. "Boxes and boxes of paper" remained, including books, magazines, and Maier's photo-related materials. He thought about discarding Vivian Maier's film negatives, which typically have little or no value.
Gunderson separated and grouped Vivian Maier's items into small lots in what he called "pop flats," traylike cardboard boxes that typically store cans of beer or soda pop. And then he put them up for sale. He included Maier's possessions in four or five auctions, offering eighty to one hundred pop flats of her books, magazines, newspapers, and other paper ephemera per auction. Maier's photographic material was largely offered at the last two auctions, held on October 17 and November 7, 2007.
RPN Sales advertises in a local newspaper, and for the October 17 sale its listing exclaimed, "Oil Paintings, Etchings, Old Photos, Old Stamps, ManyBOOKS & 30–40–50s Magazines, News Papers, Some Really Great History Here!" The paragraph-long itemization, which included furniture, along with "Knick Knacks, and What Nots," closed with, "PLUS Many Box Lots of Merchandise. Please Come By and Check it Out!!!"
One man bought all of Vivian Maier's books, paying up to $40 and $60 each for some of the lots. Apparently, he resold them individually on eBay. Another attendee recognized photography books from the early-1970s Time-Life series. Later, a man whom Maier had watched as a boy recalled a rare glimpse of her: "She loved to read. In all these storage bins, there were hundreds and hundreds [of] books. ... She loved biographies and autobiographies."
Ron Slattery, an RPN Sales regular who attended both of these auctions, thought about skipping the first one because of rain. Others must have felt similarly because the crowd was thin that evening. Slattery, who was about to turn forty-four, belonged to a lively web-based community of vernacular photography buyers and sellers who trafficked in mid-twentieth-century snapshots. A familiar and recognizable figure because of his large stature and long ponytail, Slattery also had a loyal following on his website Big Happy Funhouse, where he posted esoteric photographs and cleverly captioned family snapshots that he'd acquired at flea markets and other secondary sales like RPN's. Slattery bid on and won so much of Maier's materials that evening that he needed to take several trips to his car afterward.
Three weeks later, when it was calm and dry outside, a mass of fidgeting spectators packed the RPN Sales showroom. Gunderson recalled that as a result of word of mouth about the photographic work offered in mid-October, between ninety and 130 bidders and onlookers — a much larger audience than usual — attended the final auction. There, Ron Slattery got nervous when he saw a man he knew: "The second auction — when I walked in the door I saw Randy Prow. We are friends. But ... we both gave each other that 'Oh no' look. We knew that the price of playing poker just went up. We both collected photos. We smiled at each other. It was going to be a fun night."
The large crowd and extra bidders resulted in much higher prices than the first auction. Slattery wasn't as aggressive as he might have been had he not already acquired box loads of Maier's early prints and other materials. As the evening progressed, two other individuals dominated the winnings. "[At] that auction, Randy and a local businesswoman bought the lion's share of the material. The prices were 10 times what I paid at the first auction," said Slattery.
A businesswoman paid the most when she purchased a portfolio of Vivian Maier's photographic prints for $500. Ron Slattery ended up paying a total of $250 for all of his purchases, which comprised thousands of vintage prints of various sizes, some black-and-white negatives, color slides, motion picture footage, and more than one thousand rolls of undeveloped film.
Earlier that day, John Maloof, a twenty-six-year-old real estate agent, had visited RPN Sales and placed an absentee bid on the largest box of negatives: "There were several boxes that went with the set. I just went for the biggest one. ... I won it for I think it was $380." Fairly well known in the Chicago real estate community, the entrepreneurial Maloof also had an eBay business where he sold items that he had bought in bulk. He had a number of other small side projects, including a photo book he was coauthoring about his neighborhood. His life was about to become thoroughly entangled with Vivian Maier's work.
Yet at this moment, it seemed like the story was over. Roger Gunderson's $260 purchase of the five storage lockers had resulted in up to $20,000 in sales.
* * *
Less than ten miles away, Vivian Maier trudged around the streets of her neighborhood, Rogers Park. She spent her days gazing out at Lake Michigan from her favorite park bench. Throughout her life she had photographed beaches and bodies of water around the world. As a child and as a young woman, she had sailed on grand steamships, and later in life, she had cruisedup the Great Lakes to Canada, had ferried across Lake Michigan, and had toured the Chicago River by boat. She had also climbed mountains and viewed cities from high up on rooftops, always photographing, sometimes with more than one camera, creating an enormous body of work.
Because Vivian Maier's prints and negatives were scattered with the rest of her belongings, it is difficult to chart her progress in her early years as a dedicated photographer. There are photographs from July 1952 with Maier's handwritten notations in one collection that match the negatives in another collector's stash, and a third individual has prints with corresponding negatives from the same month. It is possible that more work from this time is with someone else, or is in the hands of someone who doesn't realize what they own; it is also conceivable that photographs from this month were destroyed or that Maier discarded them, keeping only her best exposures. What is certain is that Vivian Maier knew how to work that sophisticated Rolleiflex camera when she began using it in the early part of July 1952.
There is no evidence that Vivian Maier ever used a digital camera or the Internet, but it is safe to say that her emergence would not have occurred without today's technology. The recognition of her photographic legacy could only have happened the way it did today. What is now known as the "mystery" of Vivian Maier stems from her inclination not to share of herself or her photographic work. That mystery persists, since the auctions have made it impossible to reassemble her archive of books, correspondence, the residual evidence of her travels, and her immense photographic output.
Conflicting and sometimes dubious testimony has characterized what we can document about Vivian Maier's life, and it created a picture of an eccentric "nanny photographer." Maier hid her personal life from those who have stood in to speak for her. And those who bought her possessions have had shifting stories. Combined, we have had tangled accounts rife with mystery. But we can explore her family, her life, and the history of photography to begin to suss out who she was and what her true legacy may be. Maier's entire life was suffused by photography, even as she worked at the margins of the field. The origins of Vivian Maier's world can be found in the history of photography, French village records, and countless other sources, formal and informal. Just as photographs can be selectively cropped and edited, official testimonies can unintentionally hide — or reveal.CHAPTER 2
A New World, a New Art Form
Vivian Maier's ancestors appear twice on France's official 1896 census. Germain Jaussaud, her maternal great-grandfather, had recently acquired some land that, in 1943, seventeen-year-old Vivian Maier would inherit. The census listed the Jaussaud family of five — Germain, his wife, Émilie, and their children, Marie Eugenie, Maria Florentine, and Joseph Marcellin — within the village of Saint-Laurent-du-Cros. But, additionally, at the periphery of the adjacent town of Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur, on a plot of land called Beauregard — "beautiful view" — a separate census record indicates a smaller Jaussaud ensemble: Germain; Émilie; sixteen-year-old Eugenie; and an unrelated farmhand — domestique — Nicolas Baille, age seventeen. In fact, Eugenie had just turned fifteen. The next year, at two o'clock in the morning on May 11, 1897, Eugenie and farmhand Nicolas became the parents of Maria Jaussaud, Vivian Maier's mother. Nicolas was not at the event, nor was he mentioned in the official handwritten record, which states that the father of the baby is unknown. Although considered illegitimate and not a legally recognized member of any family, Maria, by French law, would have her mother's family name.
The world of the Jaussauds was small and provincial. When Germain Jaussaud had been born in 1823, electricity, indoor plumbing, modern transportation, and photography had not yet been invented. Germain was sixteen in the summer of 1839 when Louis Daguerre introduced his daguerreotype photograph to awed crowds in France's capital. But Paris was four hundred miles and a world away from the provincial hamlets in theChampsaur Valley; the villagers may not have known about the invention of photography until years later. The valley was so remote that when the young Vivian Maier visited there with her mother in 1932 and spoke English, she was perceived as an "extraterrestrial."
For generations, these peasant farmers had remained within their family enclaves or settled in nearby villages. An adventurous few moved to larger towns for the increased opportunities they afforded; others bought nearby farmland. Germain, the sixth of eight children, stayed with his family well into adulthood in Saint-Laurent-du-Cros, where they had lived for generations. But by the time fifty-five-year-old Germain married thirty-one-year-old Émilie Pellegrin, he resided in the larger neighboring town of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur. After their 1878 marriage in Émilie's nearby village of Bénévent-et-Charbillac, the couple settled back in Saint-Laurent-du-Cros. For all of this movement, the various villages were no more than a dozen miles apart. Émilie and Germain had five children — two who died young — before they departed for their newly acquired Beauregard farm.
Germain died in 1899. Émilie told the 1901 census enumerator that her household included her two daughters, her son, and her granddaughter Maria. But fifteen days after the census taker's visit, Eugenie was five hundred miles distant from the Champsaur Valley, boarding a steamship alone to America from Le Havre, on France's northwest coast. Eugenie told the ship's registrar that she was a housekeeper and that her last residence was in Gap, the region's largest town. Whatever the case, Eugenie left France on her daughter Maria's fourth birthday, May 11, 1901. She would never return. More than a decade would pass before her daughter joined her, leaving the remaining family in France.
Today, Eugenie Jaussaud is forgotten in France. No family or village memories remain, and no known photographs can represent this woman whose life changed irreparably when she scandalously gave birth to Vivian Maier's mother as a result of a liaison with farmhand Nicolas Baille.
The Arrival of Eugenie Jaussaud and Early Photo Practices
Nine days after leaving France, Eugenie Jaussaud arrived in America. Five weeks after that, Nicolas Baille also sailed to New York City from Le Havre. It may appear as though he was following Eugenie — he had also listed his last residence as Gap — but he soon made his way to Walla Walla, Washington. Eugenie's destination was nearer to New York City: Connecticut, where a man whom she listed as her uncle would receive her.