Two seemingly disparate parts of your life can sometimes collide with a bang. I have worked in the independent publishing business forever. A decade into that career, my wife and I employed a nanny named Vivian Maier to help raise our kids. Years later, Vivian (sadly, only after her death) has burst into prominence as a street photographer of genius, and a book of her startlingly evocative images, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, has been published by CityFiles Press, one of IPG’s client indie presses. Her work is appearing in shows all around the world. In a recent starred review, Library Journal said:
[The authors] show that Vivian Maier was a great artist—not simply “the nanny photographer,” as some have called her. VERDICT This book will be greatly appreciated by anyone interested in art photography, 20th-century art, and American cultural history. Highly recommended.
Of course, people have been asking me what she was like as a person and what it was like to employ a genius nanny. Well, she was no Mary Poppins, if what you have in mind is Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney movie. But she was a lot like the original character in P.L. Travers’s 1934 novel: eccentric, opinionated, peppery. When she came to work for my family in 1982, our kids were eight years, six years, and five months old. She was businesslike and usually competent, but our children knew she was much more interested in taking photographs than she was in them. She never took them for a walk without her Rollei twin-lens reflex camera hanging around her neck (during her life she took over 100,000 pictures). My kids don’t remember her with any special affection, and I am afraid it is true that one time she wandered off somewhere during a walk and the kids had to get home by themselves.
Her terrific photographs of children shed light on her complicated attitude toward them. Some of her images show bright-eyed, confident-looking children, but something about the photo tells you that such confidence cannot last. More often, her images show anxious children in situations that look uncomfortable or dangerous. There is a fabulous shot of a woman standing outdoors behind a table; it takes a couple of beats before you notice the sad child sitting in the shadow under the table. Children made her uneasy. She was not afraid of them but she was certainly afraid for them—afraid for their safety, their chances for happiness in what she saw as a difficult and disappointing world. I think she wanted to stop time with her camera to keep them safe.
At one point, impressed with her intense picture taking, I asked Vivian to let me see some of her work. The half dozen prints she showed me were terrific. I asked her why in the world she had not made a career out of photography. She knew of course that she was a gifted artist—the geniuses know who they are—but she could not get past her deep paranoia. She told me that if she had not kept her images secret, people would have stolen or misused them. In our age of flagrant internet exhibitionism, her reluctance now seems quite strange…and honorable. As a result of that secrecy, the world might never have seen Vivian’s incredible works—were it not for the sharp eye and dedication of one small independent publisher.
CityFiles Press is almost as sui generis as Vivian was. The two gentlemen who run the press have been honing an uncompromising aesthetic appreciation of cityscapes and urban architecture for many years. They write and produce all of the books they publish—so far five beautiful titles. What a fine thing it is that the work of this highly idiosyncratic street photographer was discovered by people so well equipped to grasp and document her unique contribution. This is indie publishing at its best.
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.