Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Nanny

Mount Moriah gatehouse, by Frank Rausch

Here’s a creepy little story for your Halloween/Day of the Dead enjoyment. Back around 2014, I was leading a photo tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia (that's me in the green hat). Around the time these photographs were taken (by my friend Frank Rausch), a woman around my age (in her fifties) came up to me and shared a fascinating piece of her personal history. I’ll paraphrase:

“When I was growing up, I used to live in that house across the street,” she said, pointing to a house on the corner of Kingsessing Avenue and Cemetery Road. “We had a nanny who used to bring us over to the cemetery. A few days after my First Holy Communion, our nanny had my brother and I dress in our church clothes and she brought us over here to take our pictures. I was maybe eight, and my brother five. I had on a white dress and he had on a little dark suit. She had us lie down in the grass on our backs, right here on the graves in front of the gatehouse. We were holding flowers in our folded hands and she had us close our eyes while she photographed us.”

I was speechless. Especially as I had recently seen the 2013 film documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” ( It’s a glimpse into the life of Vivian Maier, a loner who worked as a nanny decades ago; she was also an amateur street photographer.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

I quickly researched Maier’s history, thinking that she may have left Chicago and came to Philadelphia! Having the children play dead seemed like something she might have done. 

Maier was a nanny who cared for children for about 4 decades from the late 1950s through the 1990s. She was an odd loner who photographed urban life - a street photographer. She often photographed her charges, while she took them on outings and for walks through the not-so-nice parts of Chicago. She traveled a bit, so I was rather curious if the woman on my tour had come into contact with her. The woman at Mount Moriah did not remember her nanny’s name. However - she told me she still has the photos! The nanny gave her copies! (If you're out there reading this, I would SO love to see them!)

Vivian Maier’s story was far from normal. Maier was an avid amateur photographer, shooting three rolls of film most days with her Rolleiflex camera. She did this for decades while walking around the cities of first New York, then Chicago. She rarely printed her images, and seemed to have had a compulsive need to document the people around her, doing their everyday things. She caught people in candid, somewhat unflattering poses. She processed her film and hoarded the negatives that she made. At the time of her death in 2009, her life’s work, and most of her belongings, was sold at auction for unpaid rent of a storage facility. 

In 2007, a real estate agent named John Maloof bought the trunk of her film and negatives at auction for $380.  He was intrigued at the vast amount of work, and thought it might prove interesting. Turned out to be a treasure trove of 100,000 negatives and 700 rolls of undeveloped film! As Maloof pored over the work, he quickly realized it was the work of a master photographer. A great artist whom no one would ever have known existed, if not for Maloof’s research, archiving, printing, and documenting Maier’s work in the aforementioned film documentary. Maier was a master of her art, a street photographer extraordinaire with very few equals. Her work is easily on par with that of famous professional street photographers such as Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark. Her posed portraiture (including self-portraits) reminds one of Diane Arbus’ work.

The film Maloof made, “Finding Vivian Maier,” is rather amazing. I highly recommend it. This compelling, haunting, and captivating story shows Maier as a sort of memory hoarder, documenting urban American streetlife as no one else had in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent notoriety of Maier’s work sparked a renaissance in street photography. 

Photograph by Frank Rausch

Maloof never found Maier, who died around the time he attempted to locate her. Chances are she never would have approved of the world making such a fuss over her work. Like the glimpse of life revealed to me by the woman on my photo tour, Maier gives us a glimpse of how life appeared to her. Turns out Vivian Maier never came to Philadelphia, so the nanny in the Mount Moriah story was some other … person. I almost wrote “oddball,” because, as my dearly departed father used to say, “Edward, we’re all a little bit crazy.”