Finding Vivian Maier…’s Brother

In the enduring mystery surrounding Chicago-area nanny Vivian Maier, the amateur street photographer whose brilliant work catapulted her to worldwide fame only after her death, few characters have remained as out of focus as her long-lost brother Charles.
As Maier’s only sibling, Charles is integral to the ongoing court battle in Cook County over who has the rights to produce and sell Maier’s images, a collection potentially worth millions of dollars that’s been heralded as some of the most stunning street photography of the 20th century.
Yet few facts about her brother have ever been nailed down — at least publicly — including his exact age or even if he was still living.
Now a retired businesswoman in New York who took it upon herself to try to solve the mystery has uncovered documents that she believes reveal new aspects of Charles’ life. The evidence ranges from a handwritten baptism ledger confirming his true birth date to records showing he worked as a music teacher, served in the Army and — most crucial for the pending probate case — died nearly four decades ago in a small town in central New Jersey.

The Chicago Tribune has an update on the ongoing Vivian Maier story: further evidence about the life and death of her brother, Charles Maier, has been discovered. This information could lead to living heirs who would have the legal right to contest the copyrights sought by John Maloof, the director of the documentary, and Jeffrey Goldstein, the owner of a large portion of Maier’s negatives.

I saw Finding Vivian Maier when it was released and have thought about it often since then. It’s a really good documentary that plays on a personal fear I’ve mentioned before: I’m drawn to diaries and other archives, probably because I’m so afraid of having my shit discovered after I die.

In the case of Vivian Maier, I was torn. I felt lucky her photographs had been found by someone with such a keen interest in preserving and sharing them, but uneasy at the idea of a women’s work put on display without her knowledge or consent. There’s little evidence that Maier wanted anyone to see her photos, or that she even really considered herself an artist. She was inclined to save everything and also made audio tapes, collected newspapers; her photos made her posthumously famous but they were not necessarily her preferred or proudest medium.

I interviewed Charlie Siskel, the producer of the documentary, right before the film came out. He told me that Maier loved a good story above all else (same). According to him, she “knew a great story when she heard one. We would like to think this is exactly the kind of story Vivian would have appreciated. ‘Nanny takes 100,000 photos and hides them in storage lockers, but they’re discovered years later and she becomes a famous artist.’ That’s the kind of story Vivian would have liked.” I agreed with him then and I agree with him now. But I’m also intrigued by the continuing search for family heirs, to see how their story expands the existing one. It ups the fairy tale aspect of this whole thing, you know what I mean? Maybe there’s a niece or nephew out there who doesn’t even know that their aunt is documentary royalty…yet.