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Just enough is known about Maier’s early life to raise speculation about her training and influences. Born in New York City, she was raised largely by her French mother, who shared her flat with Jeanne Bertrand, an award-winning portrait photographer. Maier’s Austrian father disappeared from the scene while she was still a toddler. She seems to have spent much of her youth in France and claimed to have learned English in theaters. In 1951 she returned to the United States and, at age 25, went to work as a nanny, a career she pursued for the rest of her life. Though obviously not rich, she was well-traveled, possibly going around the world in 1959 and at other times traveling alone to Canada, South America, Europe and the Caribbean.
There were well-published, prominent women photographers at the time who could have been role models, most notably Lee Miller, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke-White. But Maier apparently never sought to sell or exhibit her work, and didn’t even show her photos to her few intimate friends. Fiercely independent, intellectual and deeply private, she was “a closed person,” a friend said.
“I’m sort of a spy,” she once remarked.
And an artist, she should have added.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431