“Honestly, my reaction when this process started was, oh, they’re doing a movie on my crazy nanny who I never really liked,” says Joe Matthews. The nanny’s name was Vivian Maier, and she looked after Joe, his sister Sarah and brother Clark in the Chicago suburbs for three years in the 1980s.
The family knew that Maier was unusual and that she took a lot of photographs.
Her attic bedroom was kept locked and packed full of boxes and newspapers. Joe’s mother, Linda, says that she hired Maier, who was in her 50s, because she wanted someone she could respect as an equal: “I liked Viv because she spoke her mind so I knew what I was dealing with. We could disagree. I could say, ‘No, I don’t like doing things that way.’ I thought she made a good partner.”
But neither Linda Matthews nor any of the other families
Maier worked for dreamed that soon after her death in 2009, their former nanny would be hailed as a key figure in 20th-century American photography. “The first time I saw her picture on television, I was stunned,” says Linda.
“I knew she was talented but it’s astonishing what she made of it. Who could have imagined she could have left so much behind?”
Maier left behind more than 100,000 images, in hundreds of boxes of negatives and undeveloped rolls of film, as well as some Super 8 home movie footage, audio tapes and trunks full of memorabilia.
Some of this was auctioned when Maier, who had fallen on hard times, could no longer keep up payments on a storage locker. One of the buyers was an estate agent and flea-market enthusiast called John Maloof.
When he began to print the black-and-white street portraits that were her speciality, he was captivated. Vivian Maier’s life and photography became his passion and, eventually, his living.