Walking with Vivian Maier

Before the release of John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s film Finding Vivian Maier [2014], most people never knew she needed to be found. But since the film’s trek around the world, the street photographer’s work has wrought legions of pursuing fans. 

Born in the Bronx, Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) spent most of her life in Chicago. She was introduced to her first camera in 1949, and spent the next six decades shooting between 100,000 and 150,00 negatives. 

So why are we just meeting her now? Well, Maier printed some images and tried to get them seen, but nothing much became of them. She never had a patron. She never reached the public. Perhaps overwhelmed with the volume of negatives and dollars needed to get them developed, her only option was to let them accumulate. 

So in 2007, when Mr. Maloof bought a box of them for $400 at an auction house in Chicago, it’s no surprise he didn’t know who she was either. But after he started scanning the negatives, he was moved to unravel her story. In fact, he went so far as to take a photography class and pick up a Rolleiflex like Maier once used. Today, as founder of the Maloof Collection, Ltd., he owns and curates about 90% of her archives. 

Since Maier couldn’t survive on photography, she worked as a nanny. From 1951 to 1956, she was based in Southampton. Thankfully, for today’s aficionados, the job involved trips to Manhattan. Her favorite subject was people, but as she walked about town with the kids in her care, she captured some fabulous architecture and forgotten topography. Take the contents below, for example:

 


 

Walking with Vivian Maier. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Courtesy of vivianmaier.com. 1952.

 


 

Wow, that’s a lot of City! But were was she? Thankfully, there’s a few clues in her shot.  

For one, that skyscraper in the distance is the Chrysler Building, and it’s quite near the elevated train. In the time of the Els, the closest to the Chrysler was the 3rd Avenue El; so this is probably it. But there’s also an address on one of the buildings, and it reads pretty clear:

 


 

Walking with Vivian Maier. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Courtesy of vivianmaier.com. 1952.

 


 

9-8-3. According to an old phone directory, 983 3rd Avenue was indeed home to Liberal Loans. Amazingly, the four-story building that once housed it was still standing in 2014:

 


 

Walking with Vivian Maier. Photo by Rick Stachura. L to R: 989, 987, 985, 983, and 981 3rd Avenue. April 4, 2014. 

 


 

And Maier fit each of these dwellings into her shot. Since they’re all still near 3rd Avenue and East 59th Street, she must have taken her photo aiming south from the 3rd Avenue El’s 59th Street Station. 

But an undiscovered shutterbug beat her to the corner. Here’s a lower angle of the same view from 1936:

 


 

Photo by Unknown. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Courtesy of nypl.org. Edited by Rick Stachura. 1936.

 


 

Wow! Can you spot the similarities? 

Standing here today, though, you’d have a hard time descrying anything that remains:

 


 

Photo by Rick Stachura. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. April 4, 2014.

 


 

But speaking of angles, where might Maier have stood to get hers?

Well, since her shot was to the left of the station platform, she was probably on the stairs to the street. Leaving the station’s turnstiles then, she would have seen this:

 


 

Photo by Unknown. Interior, 59th Street Station, 3rd Avenue El. Courtesy of Cyril Warren. 1939.

 


 

A stairwell. And how did that stairwell appear from the street? Well, luckily for us, we have P. L. Sperr.

A prolific lensman, Sperr (1890 -1965) worked for the New York Public Library and caught the stairs here in 1934:

 


 

Photo by P. L. Sperr. 3rd Avenue toward East 59th Street. Courtesy of nypl.org. Edited by Rick Stachura. April 21, 1934.

 


 

So Maier probably aimed from about here:

 


 

Photo by P. L. Sperr. 3rd Avenue toward East 59th Street. Courtesy of nypl.org. Edited by Rick Stachura. April 21, 1934.

 


 

Cool, huh? And, as you can see, both Maier and Sperr recorded “Joe’s Restaurant” as having been a mainstay of the block. But you can’t go there today unless you imagine its three-story sign hanging above the glass awning below:

 


 

Photo by Rick Stachura. 3rd Avenue toward East 59th Street. April 4, 2014.

 


 

So what would Maier shoot if she strolled here today? The Bloomberg Building? Bloomingdale’s? CB2?

Come to think of it, why was she in this part of the City anyway? And when was she here?

Her photo contains some hints:

 


 

Photo by Vivian Maier. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Courtesy of vivianmaier.com. 1952.

 


 

The people on the platform were staring [3]. The crowds on the sidewalk were stopped from entering the area between Liberal Loans and the Bar & Grill [2]. At least four big rigs were idling on the street [1]. One of the trucks — from the Schumer Trucking Company once based on West 53rd Street —  was running a series of cables to a building [4]. Yes, sir, there was a film being made here!

While researching her book Vivian Maier Developed: The Real Story of the Photographer Nanny [2018], writer Ann Marks discovered that the movie being shot here was a Twentieth Century-Fox release called Taxi [1953]. And, according to a mention in the New York Times, the crew was toiling about the City in July and August 1952, so Maier took her behind-the-scenes snap at some point then. Even more intriguing, the contact sheet from which Maier’s shot was culled included 10 images of a closed, yet staged, restaurant interior. Ms. Marks hypothesized that the eatery was Joe’s Restaurant. 

But why was Maier taking stills in Joe’s? Well, as Ms. Marks proposed in an email exchange, the restaurant’s dining room was a Taxi set and Maier had some tie to the film. Perhaps she was a location scout. Or working in the art department. Maybe she was trying to break into commercial photography. After all, as Ms. Marks noticed while compiling her book, some of Maier’s prints looked like attempts to assemble a portfolio. 

Yet long after Taxi, Maier kept coming here. So what drew her so often to 3rd and 59th Street?

 


 

Photo by Vivian Maier. Courtesy of Ann Marks. 1954.

 


 

Back on the block and Intimate Relations is playing at the Baronet Theatre. The film opened there on February 20, 1954, so Maier’s walking here in early ’54. But now the camera’s focused on her objective just under the Chiropodist sign: It’s Carola Photo Studio.

According to Ms. Marks, “Carola” was a German photographer named Carola Hemes. She ran her studio at 987 3rd Avenue with an office and darkroom. It was here where Maier first started processing her film. Later, she may have worked with the darkrooms next door too. 

But what first brought Maier up to the neighborhood — and ultimately Carola’s — was possibly an ad. Appearing in a 1952 edition of the New York Post, it read:

 


 

Screenshot by Rick Stachura. Courtesy of fultonhistory.com. As advertised in the New York Post. February 21, 1952.

 


 

Or perhaps Maier heard this tabloid tale. Published that same year in the Long Island Star-Journal, it would certainly have drawn attention to the darkrooms in the area:

 


 

Screenshot by Rick Stachura. Courtesy of fultonhistory.com. As reported in the Long Island Star-Journal. July 25, 1952. 

 


 

(1 + 2) Photos by Vivian Maier. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Courtesy of vivianmaier.com. 1952.

(3) Photo by Rick Stachura. L to R: 989, 987, 985, 983, and 981 3rd Avenue. April 4, 2014. 

(4) Photo by Unknown. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Courtesy of nypl.org. Edited by Rick Stachura. 1936.

(5) Photo by Rick Stachura. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. April 4, 2014.

(6) Photo by Unknown. Interior, 59th Street Station, 3rd Avenue El. Courtesy of Cyril Warren. 1939.

(7 + 8) Photos by P. L. Sperr. 3rd Avenue toward East 59th Street. Courtesy of nypl.org. Edited by Rick Stachura. April 21, 1934.

(9) Photo by Rick Stachura. 3rd Avenue toward East 59th Street. April 4, 2014.

(10) Photo by Vivian Maier. 3rd Avenue at East 59th Street. Filming “Taxi” [1953]. Courtesy of vivianmaier.com. 1952.

(11) Photo by Vivian Maier. Visiting Carola Photo Studio. Courtesy of Ann Marks. 1954.

(12) Screenshot by Rick Stachura. Courtesy of fultonhistory.com. As advertised in the New York Post. February 21, 1952.

(13) Screenshot by Rick Stachura. Courtesy of fultonhistory.com. As reported in the Long Island Star-Journal. July 25, 1952. 

 

(Portions of this story were originally posted to my old Tumblr site on April 4, 2014.)

 


 

 

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