Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 1

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:

Vivian Maier, street photographer and nanny (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 discovery.

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)
©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 Street View 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 Street View. 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.
The Street View view, April 2009.

(Update: the building has since been demolished; it is no longer there in Street View’s image from 2012.)

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.)

Side-by-side comparison.
Side-by-side comparison.

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.
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.


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.

Also see: Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 2.

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:

16 thoughts on “Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 1

  1. Have you recently read or seen “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”? Your acting very “Mikael Blomkvist & Lisbeth Salander”!
    Dumb question, but would they have embedded their address into the brickwork rather than the year?
    Great story regardless and some excellent researching. Anticipating the sequel…

  2. Absolutely fascinating, Ed! And sharp eyes by your sidekick! Looking forward to whatever you turn up next.

  3. Harry, that could be it. Just a facade job. Reno, or new owner as of 1952. Something like that. (No, I haven’t read GWTDT, nor seen the new movie, although I did see the original Swedish version last year…)

    Thanks, Beth. We have another image from Quebec City too, that Martine found on one of the Web sites (it’s not in the book). I can trace it to a neighbourhood, but I can’t be quite as precise as with the rue du Roi one without some further research. But I’m on it!

  4. I am curious what she might be standing on. The picture is clearly taken with the camera positioned at least 2m off the ground!

  5. I know this neighbourhood very well. A fun thing about this picture is that Vivian Mair was standing precisely in front of Eugen Kedl’s studio on rue du Roi. Kedl is maybe the most famous photographer from Quebec city :

    The Kedl Studio was founded in 1961. If this picture was taken after 1961, it may be possible that Maier was there because of this photographer.

  6. Poutine Pundit, thanks to your map link (and what I extrapolated from it) I have positively identified the second Vivian Maier photo from Quebec City. I will make a post about it in the coming days…

  7. It’s a wonderful mystery story. Who is this woman who wondered through her life, taking pictures on her days off, many of which she didn’t even develop. How did a well traveled woman who spoke at least two languages end up as a nanny by the age of 30? What did she do before that? 30,000 negatives, 30% of which were still on the rolls. Didn’t she know how good she was? Didn’t she try to take her photos somewhere? Was there no one there there?

    In the video, “Century”, an anthology of 20th century street photography, was visible for a second on Maloof’s desk. I bought it when it came out in 2000. Its photographs have the same enigmatic quality that Maier’s have. Why are street photos so fascinating? Because they’re about people like us, perhaps long dead, communicating with us through a photograph?

    If there’s any lesson here, it’s keep up your street photography. You may not be allowed to publish them now, but in 2070 those who come after will be grateful to you for having taken them.

  8. I have this dream that she may have captured my mom and my grand-mother pushing my brother in a stroller. (He was born in 1950.) My grand-father worked at Pollack right around the corner.

  9. You two are weird and wonderful! I’m proud to be your friend!

    I want a project like that!

    This is even more inspiring than the time you spent a weekend learning cellphone hardware programming just so you could have the 24 ringtone on yours!

    Don’t block this, it’s not spam though it clearly resembles it!

    – lightspeedchick!!!!

  10. @Lightspeedchick: Think of all the unwritten novels that went into this research project…

  11. I’ve made the same investigation with the same result. I’ve got a Dejà vue feeling.The priest playing balls… (i dont mean some forgoten trauma), this type of scene of the 50 is more typical for a catholic culture. Then i saw the text in french. It might be in Quebec. The streets and the buildings was totally the type of what we found in the Saint Roc district of Quebec city. I tried google street view, searching for schools, nothing match. Then i ask to the boyfriend of my mother (in his childhood, he live in the district). It was is school. He use to go to the Boulangerie in the picture (the bakery). Then i found you’re blog.
    Thank you !

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