What “Finding Vivian Maier” Teaches us about Child Care

Vivian Maier

(c) Vivian Maier/Maloof


By Jacalyn S Burke

In a compelling new documentary Finding Vivian Maier biographer John Maloof explores the hidden world of a nanny called Vivian Maier.

Maier worked as a nanny and housekeeper for most of her adult life, all the while she took an astonishing number of photographs. While the world is quite rightly waking up to her artistic genius, what is also coming into focus is an unsettling profile of a troubled caregiver.

Maloof steers the documentary through a series of interviews and old footage (both video and photographic) surrounding several families who either employed Maier as a nanny or associated with her as she worked as a nanny.

Common misconceptions about nannies

The first time nanny-prejudice rears its head is when Maloof himself questions how a nanny could be in the same moment a person of incredible talent. Its an opinion echoed by others albeit unconsciously or innocently who knew Maier. It is evident that Maier’s passion for photography was not taken seriously in her lifetime – but since her death, the same people are wondering why she chose to work as a nanny at all?  Now that the world is understanding her brilliance.

The documentary demonstrates that nannies are still universally presumed to be persons who are unable to gain any other form of employment besides “unskilled domestic labor”.  This assumption is occasionally suspended in the case of a Norland or an INA nanny – but for the ordinary, everyday nanny, confronting these patronizing attitudes is a regular occurrence. Women of color in particular, must frequently weather ignorant opinions about their educational background, their abilities to advance themselves economically and their individual dreams and talents.

The fact is, that many talented persons choose to work in childcare because they enjoy taking care of children and of remaining somewhat free of the corporate workplace. I can identify with Maier’s love of the outdoors and of seeing the world anew through a young child’s eyes.  Child care is a labor of love on so many levels, and during my ten years in the industry I can personally testify to the extraordinary amount of accomplished and driven individuals who worked as nannies. So what’s the contradiction in Maier’s choice to remain largely anonymous and her incredible contribution to American photography? For Maier there wasn’t one. Her art was her own private world – a place unsullied by society’s attitudes and demands. It ran parallel to her work as a nanny.

Yet Finding Vivian Maier and other articles written about her continue to operate as a subtle cautionary tale. Large cultural institutions ignore her place amongst contemporary talent. Maier’s legacy is stymied by her lack of professional success in her own life-time. Experts wonder. Was she just a fluke? An anomaly? Why didn’t she try harder to break out of domestic labor? It doesn’t take a detective or a psychoanalyst to draw answers from Maier’s photography itself.

Being a nanny is as good as being invisible. One can move about with little scrutiny. One can observe and document every type of person’s behavior without receiving much opposition. Maier’s curiosity for the everyday – the so-called mundane aspects of urban life – was insatiable. Child care isn’t a mechanical experience. It takes one into the heart of a community’s landscape. It is both micro-cosmic and macro-cosmic. For creatives it is an incredibly liberating way to earn a living.

The darker side of Vivian Maier

Perhaps the most powerful lesson we can derive from Vivian Maier’s life as a nanny – as errily demonstrated in Maloof’s documentary – is her mental and emotional unraveling towards the end of her career. We know that her mental illness as exemplified by her obsessive compulsion to retain things: newspapers, receipts, tickets, beyond that of the average pack rat, her various alias’s, her taking of her charges to dangerous locations, and her erratic outbursts of violence and inappropriate comments towards the children left in her care, highlights the blind-zone that child care as an unregulated, unlicensed, mostly black-market sector, leaves parents in.

We know that in the early days when Maier was happy the children she cared for were deeply connected to her. Toward the end of her life two former charges found her an apartment and paid her rent until her death. And yet, we learn disturbingly, even with this family Maier chose to photograph one of the children injured in a road accident rather than to put aside her photographic compulsion to document. In that instance, we are left with intimate images of vulnerable people and a distant omnipresent Maier.

For the children Maier cared for later in her life, the narratives become darker. We learn of abusive talk and actual violence. We watch as bewildered and vulnerable former employers detail Maier’s descent into more bizarre, eccentric behavior. We witness the subtle dance of enabling that some parents feel coerced into. Ultimately we learn that Maier succumbed to mental illness and poverty. Without the financial aid of her previous charges it is possible that she would have ended up as just another bag lady – her vast collection of photographic treasures lost forever.

This too speaks to the lack of long-term security inherent in the child care industry. Hundreds of thousands of nannies live from check to check with no plan for retirement. Maier – an American citizen – almost fell through the cracks of obscurity albeit for John Maloof. How many of Maier’s childcare contemporaries fell through the cracks? We shall never know.

So before we look at Vivian Maier through the lens of our own projections – isn’t it time we tried to just actually see her? Her career as a nanny afforded her access and mobility and a measure of freedom. It was a huge part of who she was. I venture to say that it was as important to her as the photographs she took. And like her art she left some golden and some bitter legacies.