Yet in death, as in life, Maier eluded close inspection. In 2009, a brief obituary in The Chicago Tribune remembering a “second mother” and “photographer extraordinaire” led Maloof to the Gensburg family, Maier’s longest-term employers, and from there to other families who had hired her for nannying or care. Census and travel records established that she was born in the Bronx, had French and Austro-Hungarian heritage, was raised by her mother, and spent some childhood years in France. She returned to New York in 1951, where she worked in a sweatshop, before moving onto Chicago in 1956. In 1959, she took a world trip, taking pictures in Los Angeles, Bangkok, Beijing, and across India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy.
Beyond these biographical fragments, Maier remained mysterious to Maloof – and to the many families who had welcomed her into their homes. Her continental accent was hard to place. She wore capacious, old-fashioned clothes. With each new employer, she changed details of her back story and alternately asked to be called “Vivian”, “Viv”, or “Ms Maier”. She left pseudonyms with storekeepers and shifted the spelling of her last name. She described herself in one encounter as “sort of a spy”. For some of those who were in her care, she was unstable, callous, even abusive. To others, she was imaginative, positive, and playful.
Since her posthumous recognition, Maier’s domestic work is sometimes cast in opposition to her creative talent. “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” Maloof asks, with a note of absurdity, in Finding Vivian Maier. Yet Maier’s employment in family homes can also be seen as enabling of, and compatible with, her photography. It provided her with board and lodging. It gave her a basic income. And it afforded her a freedom of movement and subject matter. Day after day, she took her charges on long excursions – through downtown, side streets, stockyards and slums. They would walk for miles, Maier striding ahead with her camera, stopping whenever something caught her eye.