The first line of Vivian Maier’s Wikipedia page describes her as a photographer first and a nanny second. Although she was not recognized as an artist until after she died, until her work was auctioned off from the inside of a storage unit. This is not an uncommon story.
I started nannying for the money.
I was sick of retail and the hours on my feet. Sick of $8.75 an hour and the feeling of gum on a clothing hanger. I accepted a job with the first family I met. I loved the way their sons answered the door in their pajamas, matching and striped. I loved the way they asked me my favorite color as an interview question. I don’t remember what my answer was. Probably not the truth, that my favorite color is pink. I remember the outfit I wore. I put on fake tortoise shell rimmed glasses and a loose button up blouse. My face was bare with only a flash of mascara, just enough to show that I cared. I wore whatever would confuse the shape of my body. I knew even then, that no one wants a nanny to also be a woman.
When I started to tell people I was becoming a nanny they would say, “That’s good practice!” As if I were meant to be a mother; destined. When people would ask me the difference between babysitting and nannying I said that a nanny raises a child and a babysitter makes sure they don’t eat dish soap. There are infinite differences but this got a laugh and an excuse to change the subject. There are only a few kinds of jobs you are allowed to be proud of. This is the kind that causes polite nods. Someone will say, well isn’t that fun?
As a child I thought all women had babies inside them already, just waiting to grow. When I was alone I would press my hands around my abdomen and think about what to do with it. I wanted to know how long I had before it would come out.
Vivian Maier’s photos mostly feature those who were unnoticed. Children and women. She often included her own shadow. In a gallery I find online featuring her self-portraits there is a photo of two women’s feet. Her shadow is cut in half and just to the left of them.
She’s there, but only slightly.
I don’t remember when I decided to start lying. Telling my parents I was babysitting overnight was easier than telling them the truth. Despite being in college, I was still living in their house. Still living the way a Jehovah’s Witness would. At least in the ways that they could see. I went to services three times a week, made no friends outside of the community, and I definitely wasn’t gay. I never intended to become good at it, lying, but it was the only way I could go to parties, go to my partner’s house, go anywhere. I would set an alarm on my phone to go off in the middle of dinner and pick it up as if I were answering a call. “Yes, of course. I can do that” I would speak loud. I would come back to the table shaking my head. My mom would act disgusted by the parents' assumed lack of care for their children. She would say See, some parents don’t spend any time with their children. That’s why you’re always there. To do their job. I would close my eyes and nod. I worked hard. I was a yes person. They taught me this. Those poor children.
Kirk Douglas at the premiere of the movie Spartacus
Chicago, IL. October 13, 1960
He picks a child, a girl, up in his hands. No one looks directly at the camera but the child does. I wonder how Vivian could call out to these people and not others. Or if they instantly noticed her presence, an air of authority, but only to the little ones.
I start camming for the money.
I enjoy being watched. I love the way the men are enamored with me, as I writhe on top of a pillow while a pop song plays. I don’t have any sex toys or a good webcam but I make this my thing. Amateur. Young woman with a (fake) southern accent, with big tits and a childhood bedroom. Most of the men want someone to talk to. If I don’t address their questions directly they will get upset and leave my page. I get my biggest tips when I take a long time to take my clothes off, when I ask everyone how their day was. There is a moment when I am covered in coconut oil, the only thing I had that would make me glisten, and my mother calls. I slam my laptop shut and place an arm across my chest, hands over both my nipples. When I finally open my computer again, there are dozens of comments asking where I went. Was that a boyfriend? I smile and say yes.
They love this shit.
New York, NY
Vivian’s photographs focused on people she could relate to. They look at the camera as if they are noticing things about you. On a contact sheet, a photo of a man curled into himself and asleep is next to a photo of a baby. The baby has its eyes open, but just barely. A hand in its mouth. And next to that, a man on crutches gets removed from a police car. Someone holds him steady on each side.
Vivian never had any intention of showing her work. It was in storage for a reason, untouched and unheard of. There was no plan left in her will. What gave these men the right.
There is a moment when my lies start to unravel. My father drives me home and when the garage door closes he tells me that there is nothing beautiful about it. Nothing beautiful about the way I talk, the way I advertise my sexuality. My father is worried that I reveal too much. He says he has read all of my work and he says this like it is something that should shock me. He recites a line of mine back to me where I describe a man in my mouth. Is this to embarrass me? Or has it been weighing so heavily on him, the image, that he had to let it out and hand it back.
Sometimes when I talk to people about Vivian they had no idea she was ever a nanny. In that moment I feel that this is a secret we share, her and I. I believe what made Vivian so intriguing to the art world is that she was just a nanny with a hobby. But I feel that I know the truth. And maybe that is also presumptuous. To decide I know her.
Riding in the car with my father I hear a story on This American Life about two teenagers who invent children to babysit in order to get out of their own home. We both listen and laugh. Her brother tells Ira Glass, “She had to say exactly where she was going and who she was going with, she could go to church dances….It was all about protecting her chastity, I guess” She invented a family, called the McCreery’s. We talk about how brilliant they were. When I finally get home my jaw cracks. I didn’t realize I had been holding it together so tightly.
In the story the young woman’s mother called her a whore before she knew what the word was. She tells us, “I couldn’t look it up. I didn’t even know how to spell it”.
I research Vivian Maier endlessly. I find an essay that relates her work to a Winston Churchill quote and quickly close the tab. I don’t know who she was taking pictures for. I know it was not us, but we want it to be. We long to see the world from her point of view, the worker. But do not ever long to be the worker. The life of a caretaker is intriguing, but certainly never something to envy. We marvel at the way someone can capture “American Life” but do not want to live it. We look at her work that was salvaged and say, Thank god. Thank god she did that for us. In an article about Vivian I read, “The story of this nanny who has now wowed the world with her photography, and who incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels...of Urban America... is seemingly beyond belief” I don’t continue. I know what they are saying.
How could a babysitter do all this?
The website for the documentary about Vivian Maier states that, “Currently, Vivian Maier’s body of work is being archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and for future generations.” Who decided her intention was enjoyment? If these photographs were a secret, why didn’t we let her keep it? An article tuts on about artistic integrity, but only about how she would have wanted the photos to be printed.'
During a cam session I would bring my mattress to the ground in order to get better lighting. So the sun would stream directly onto my body. Sometimes this created an angelic effect, my skin becoming so illuminated it turned into a stark white on my computer screen. Watching yourself being watched can be a beautiful thing. Here is what your body can do and here is how it is making men feel. Their screen names were not what you would expect. Generally just a fact about themselves, reminiscent of an AIM screen name. canadianguy27. rideharleydavidsons44. The thing that most surprised me is that they all liked my haircut, short and shaved on the sides. Sometimes I wouldn’t speak at all because my mother was home or because I didn’t want to hear myself say the things they wanted so badly. I wondered often how they could type so quickly and jerk off at the same time. How hot their breath must be. I imagined the little spots of condensation on their screens.
Have you ever said I’m getting wet to an empty room.
There are a high number of self-portraits in her work, "in many ingenious permutations, as if she were checking on her own identity or interpolating herself into the environment.” Or, I think, she wanted to remember what she looked like that day.
Many articles mention the difficulty of piecing together Vivian’s life. It is said that when John Maloof found Vivian’s work at a storage unit auction, it changed his life course. How novel, for a man to find something that was never meant to be found.
Am I kind because I am a woman? I don’t think so. I’d like to think that it is bigger than that.
When I visited a boy I nannied years later, he was the same, only taller. Gigantic and pink. His hair was the white blonde it always had been. He brought me drawings and didn't ask what I thought of them. But widened his eyes in the way that I knew meant he wanted me to marvel at them. And so I did.
I decided I wouldn’t watch the Finding Vivian Maeir documentary. Mostly because I want to respect her privacy, and a little because I can’t find it for less than 10 dollars.
I wanted to be something different. I felt trapped by children. I missed adult conversation and couldn’t remember the last time I had one. I couldn’t remember the last time I did not have to ask if someone needed to pee before we left, and were they sure they didn’t want to at least try?
I attend what I believe to be a seminar on working for a nonprofit, but it turns out to be wealthy people congratulating themselves for doing minimal volunteer work. A networking event. Wine is being served. I want to grab a glass but feel a weight that keeps me in my seat. I sense that everyone knows I changed my milk stained clothes in the car. That they know I was sweating as I pulled my jeans on in my reclined front seat. There is a panel of business owners taking questions, waxing nostalgic about the days of basements turned into offices and startups. They are providing statistics of all the people they’ve helped. They can't contain themselves, they brag about the diversity they welcome, encourage even.
There is a woman on the panel who worked at the same company as one of the mothers I nannied for and I see this as an opportunity for something. She runs a marketing firm now. I think, I could do that. I ask her if she knows MaryPat, and she does. She leans in and asks me if I was on her team. I say, In a way, yea. I was her nanny. She tugs on her collar and says well, we all need nannies. I can’t remember now if she excused herself or just walked away. It seems at times that shame can take on a shape. Like another woman.
Vivian often made specific notes to the labs on what kind of paper and how dark each image should be. I wonder if she anticipated this unearthing. Sometimes I think about what will happen to everything I’ve written after I’m dead. I won’t leave any instructions because I think that could seem presumptuous, tacky even.
I start a new job by lying. I do this for the money.
I mark each nannying job as personal assistant work. I was personally assisting this child. I don’t know what to charge people for my services. Like sucking my toes on camera. Or caring for children. I am thinking $17 an hour.
When I tell the women at my new job that I was a nanny they tell me how noble they believe motherhood to be. And they tell me like they are doing me a favor. A woman begins to tell the story of her own nanny. How she came from overseas and didn’t have a phone, so they bought her one. For us to get a hold of her, of course. Her face is round, pink and gleaming as if she can’t believe what she is about to say. When her nanny went back to her home country she returned the phone. She kept all her messages on it. She was being intimate with someone. Her voice snaps with laughter as she goes on about sharing her nanny’s photos and texts with her husband. How she showed people at work. How she said look what I got.
December 21, 1961
In this photograph a man lies on the ground, a police officer squats above him with his hand in the man's pocket. He is passed out, or possibly dead. The officer must be looking for a wallet. An older woman stands just a few steps away with her hand over her mouth.