Past Blast Tuesday: Jeanne Bertrand – The Mentor Trumped By The Artist


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Maier Exhibition Jeanne Bertrand housed photographer Vivian Maier and her mother and was likely an influence on Maier’s character studies.

Photo Credit: Onlookers at a gallery admiring the portraits made by Vivian Maier, taken by Thomas Leuthard, uploaded on December 10, 2014: Thomas Leuthard/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about the recently discovered work of mid-20th century photographer Vivian Maier. Maier made headlines in 2009 when a large body of her work was discovered by a lawyer who bought boxes of her photographs at a garage sale, unaware of the brilliance and remarkable talent that lay behind them in the photographer who led a quiet and humble life as a nanny.

While researching Maier, I discovered that Maier and her mother had lived with a woman named Jeanne Bertrand who was described as one of the most promising portrait photographers of the late 19th/early 20th century and that got me interested in learning more about this photography pioneer.

What followed was both a lesson in frustration and an instruction on early 20th century women artists. As I exhausted my internet searches, what kept coming up was websites that focused on Maier. Indeed, it almost seems as if this photographer, once hailed as the most promising in the field, had completely disappeared under the recent prominence of her protegee. So this blog post will be a short one.

Actually, it’s not clear whether Bertrand was even much of a mentor, as some sources claim that Maier was a child when she and her mother lived with her. Other sources mention that it was Bertrand’s enthusiasm for photography (along with her own mother’s encouragement) that started Maier on her way.

From what I could find out about Bertrand, she did indeed have enthusiasm for her art. Born of an immigrant French family, she came to the United States as a child. Her father was a merchant who, like many immigrants, came with great expectations to America and died poor and embittered. Bertrand followed a familiar pattern in the late 19th century and early 20th century of young immigrant women doing factory work. She worked in a factory that manufactured needles for sewing machines and according to her own words, hated the monotony and oppressive sweatshop conditions. Interestingly, one of the reasons why Bertrand’s work made such an impression so as to have her featured in the Boston Globe article referenced below is that she had taken up photography at a relatively late age (seventeen or eighteen) and had only been working at it for four years before the article was published. But what Bertrand lacked in experience she made up for in passion. By her own account, she became fascinated by the nuts and bolts of photography one day when she decided to have her own picture taken. With a certain gumption that many people weren’t used to in women during this time, she asked the photographer for a job. He insisted that he would never take anyone inexperienced but it’s clear that he was impressed by her enthusiasm and called upon her to help him with some equipment a few days later. Eventually, Bertrand learned the trade from him and ended up helping him run his business.

As for Bertrand’s photographic style, there is very little information and I couldn’t locate even one photograph taken by her. What we do know is that she was a portrait photographer and focused on character studies. Some sources mention that the aspects of Maier’s photographs that many find so fascinating – the still-life study of people living their lives on the street – was influenced by Bertrand’s work.

Other than that, we really don’t know much about Bertrand’s life and work. Although this blog post doesn’t really add much new information, I felt it was important to include it. The fact that a woman who has been called a pioneer of photography almost completely disappearing can’t be emphasized as well as the irony that she may have influenced one of the more recent discoveries in the photography world. Since one of my goals for this blog is to unearth forgotten women artists, this post needed to be written.

Further Reading: (the Vivian Maier website with a section about Bertrand) (translation of Wikipedia article on Jeanne Bertrand) (PDF version of the Boston Globe article about Jeanne Bertrand written in 1902)


Author: tammayauthor

Tam May was born in Israel but grew up in America. She earned her college degree in English before returning to the States. She also has a Master's degree in English and worked as an English college instructor and EFL teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes psychological fiction that explores emotional realities informed by past experiences, dreams, feelings, fantasies, nightmares, imagination, and self-analysis. Her first work, a short story collection titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories is out now in paperback. She is currently working on a novella series titled Waxwood Series and a book titled House of Masks. She currently lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films. For more information, feel free to check out her website at