Vivian Maier in Quebec

Vivian Maier was a street photographer who worked in obscurity from the 1950s until she died at 83 in 2009. Her work was “discovered,” quite literally, only days before her death, and since then much has been written about her and it. If you’re not familiar with the story, this roughly ten minute video from WTTW in Chicago (via YouTube) provides a nice overview.

[youtube width=”500″ height=”355″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWEDOnBfDUI[/youtube]

(Direct link to the video on YouTube.)

I first heard about Vivian Maier in late 2010. John Maloof, who discovered her work, had been scanning and posting images to a blog he created to show the work, and was also showing it on Flickr in one of the street photography discussion groups. The Flickr group and other street photography online communities were abuzz with excitement over the work.

Maier’s work is held in two different collections; one owned by Maloof and the other by art collector Jeffrey Goldstein, both of Chicago. Prints have been making the rounds of various galleries in the United States and Europe, and in early 2011 came word that a book would be published from Maloof’s collection. I pre-ordered the book the second it showed up on Amazon. It finally arrived in early December.

I was worried about the quality of the reproductions, as John Maloof is a real estate agent, not a fine art curator nor an expert in scanning and reproduction technologies. Fortunately he’s young, seems very determined, and appears to be a fast learner. The book is gorgeous, and the scans and reproductions are beautiful.

A few days after the book arrived, Martine was looking through it and she noticed the writing on some signs in one image were in French. This was a bit odd, as the vast majority of Maier’s work that has been shown thus far (which is only a small percentage of the total body of work) is from New York and Chicago. But it is known that she traveled, and that she had family in France. We looked again at the image and it was obvious that the architecture was very North American. That could mean only one thing: Vivian Maier had been to Montreal!

©Vivian Maier, from Vivian Maier Street Photographer (2011 PowerHouse Books)

Or not. It turns out I was wrong. Or to be precise, I was wrong in thinking the photograph had been taken in Montreal. All of my attempts to locate the setting of the photograph came up empty. The scene looked like it could be along rue St-Jacques or even Notre-Dame, but the buildings didn’t seem familiar. I did historical research on the few recognizable business names, to no result.

Then it hit me: Montrealer that I am, I had fallen into the trap of thinking that all of Quebec (and thus, the world) revolves around Montreal. I kicked myself in the butt and started researching Quebec City. It took about five minutes to locate the scene as being on rue du Roi, between rue de la Couronne and rue Dorchester. That’s the street that runs along the north (i.e., back) side of the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy in the working-class, rapidly-turning-hipster neighbourhood of Saint-Roch.

To find the location I searched for information about “Turcotte Letourneau,” the easiest to read business sign in the photograph. That lead me to a picture of a business card for Turcotte & Létourneau Ltée from the late 1950s in the PatrimoineQc Flickr stream. A Google Streetview search of that address immediately followed.

The scene looks very different now. The fenced-in lot where the people are playing ball has been replaced by the exit ramp from the library’s underground parking. Everything in the foreground has been replaced by bus and loading zones for the library itself, which opened in 1983.

Most of the buildings on the far side of the street – including the Turcotte & Létourneau one – are gone, replaced by a large hotel that extends all the way east to the corner of rue de la Couronne. The hotel opened in 1987.

I looked for some visual cues to verify the location and I found two. The first is the building at the left of the Maier image with the barber shop at the ground level and an array of six square windows on the upper two floors. That building is still there and can be seen in Streetview. It hasn’t changed much. The sash windows have been replaced by single panes and the barber pole is gone, but otherwise it’s clearly the same building:

The Street View view, April 2009.

You can see part of that building with the sashes intact in this 1981 photo of the hole being dug for the bibliothèque. Look on the right edge of the image; you can see two of the windows, as well as the little rinky-dink Hotel Dahlia that still exists just to the left of the building. (The photo in the link is from the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America’s article on the rebirth of Saint-Roch.)

The other point of verification is farther down the street (to the right) on the other side of rue de la Couronne. In the Maier photograph you can see a two story building, whitewashed on the ground floor with a brick facade on the second floor. You can see a sign written in script but you can only read the last three letters, “nie.” The giveaways are the distinctive corner window on the second floor and the ground-floor corner entrance. The building with that window is still there; it houses Restaurant Saigon Bangkok.

April 2009 vs. circa 1950-something.

This is all very fascinating on multiple levels. As not much is known about Vivian Maier and her life, information about her travels is sketchy.

1952?

According to Martine’s research, Vivan Maier was in Canada at least twice, once in 1951 and again in 1955. A confusing aspect of her photograph is the building to the right of Turcotte & Létourneau, which is clearly marked “1952 EDIFICE HARNOIS.” That is confusing because Martine’s research indicates Maier was in Quebec in 1951 but she could find no specific evidence of Quebec being on the itinerary for the 1955 trip. It’s also confusing because the building marked “1952” seems to be of a much older style that would be build that year.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about all this, at least for me and Martine, is on a purely personal level. Martine is very familiar with that street, as that neighbourhood is where, as a girl, she and her mother would do the weekly shopping, and where she’d hang out with her friends. Later, as a CEGEP and then university student, she worked part-time at the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy for several years.

You can tell by the cars in the scene that the Vivian Maier photo was most likely taken in the mid-1950s, long before Martine was born. But Martine’s parents and her uncles and aunts were around then. We’re wondering if there are other photographs from that trip in which a member of Martine’s family might be visible. Given the thousands of yet unscanned and unpublished photographs in the archive, it’s a fun idea to hang onto, but not one to hold our breaths over.

Update 1: I have found the location of a second Vivian Maier photo taken in Quebec City.

Update 2: According to a friend’s father, who has been working on Ford cars since the 1950s, one of the cars visible in the rue de Roi photo is either a 1952 or 1953 model, based on the chrome trim. That implies this photo could not have been taken during Maier’s 1951 trip.

References and further reading: