There are several pieces of conventional wisdom about Vivian Maier: She was a nanny; she was also a photographer; she was mysterious and secretive; she and her work were discovered and promoted primarily by John Maloof, the former Chicago real-estate agent who owns a large portion of her belongings and made an Oscar-nominated documentary about her, Finding Vivian Maier. All of these things are true, but placing emphasis on one or another can change the narrative—and even taken together, they don’t tell the whole story.
Maier was a nanny, but that didn’t overwhelm her identity as a photographer; she spent copious amounts of money on equipment and was known to travel with at least three cameras at a time. Maier was a doggedly private person, to the extent that she gave out false names and showed her photographs to very few people—but arguably this is only a strange quality in hindsight, in the age of the Internet, when privacy barely exists anymore. (It’s also worth noting that she had a family history of paranoia.) Maloof was responsible for recognizing and publicizing Maier’s talent, and for building her posthumous public persona, but he wasn’t the only person involved in that process, and he did so in a way that raises ethical questions.
The key is context, and the problem is that for many years, we didn’t have enough. Maier left behind so much and, at the same time, so little. Her possessions were scattered at auction after she failed to make payments on five storage lockers, and then were further scattered by resale. So Maier’s legacy exists in pieces—a “fractured archive,” as Pamela Bannos calls it in her new biography, Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife. The highest value of Bannos’s book is that it contains an incredible amount of contextual information, more than has ever been uncovered or synthesized about Maier before. At last, we have a way of separating the individual from the myths that have been constructed around her.
The revelation of greater context is the beating heart of Bannos’s book, and she’s clear from the start that she sees it as an act of feminist reclamation. “Maier’s work and her life are defined over and over again by presumptions about and representations of her as a woman,” Bannos writes in the introduction. She points out that despite Maier’s fierce independence—she never married and clearly set the terms of her own life—and the fact that she “found men to be ‘uncouth’…her legacy has been almost entirely in the hands of men.”
Indeed, Maloof and other men remain an inseparable part of Maier’s public face: Her artist biography on the website of the Howard Greenberg Gallery includes a paragraph about Maloof, and her Wikipedia page names collectors Ron Slattery, Randy Prow, and Jeffrey Goldstein as well. The portrayal of a woman artist as a long-sequestered object, awaiting discovery by men—almost a conquest—has a well-worn history (and is in no way limited to women who are dead). As Ashton Cooper wrote in an essay titled “The Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist,” “Instead of the tired story where a masculinist force deigns to discover, find, or recognize female artists, what if we tried to also understand the material realities of these women’s lives?”
That’s precisely what Bannos attempts to do, using the lifetime of items that Maier left behind—bank ledgers, photo books, letters, clothing, albums—as her guide. The most important resource in this process is Maier’s trove of photographs, which sometimes document her life in less aesthetically interesting but, to a researcher, crucial ways. She “kept uniquely meticulous records by using her camera as a copy machine,” Bannos notes, allowing us to know, for instance, when Maier applied for a new passport and what falsehoods she listed on the application (death dates for her parents, both of whom were still alive but neither of whom she was in contact with).
More often, though, Bannos uses Maier’s photographs to track her movements alongside the development of her art. After two chapters of outlining her family history—beginning with her maternal great-grandparents, who lived in France’s Champsaur Valley during the 19th century, and on to Maier’s 1926 birth in New York City, followed by her tumultuous childhood (her parents split soon after she was born, and her mother was mentally ill)—we meet Maier the photographer. She began taking pictures on a trip to France in 1950, when she was 24 years old, and shot an incredible amount of film from the get-go—more than 3,000 photographs in one year abroad. What’s more, “from the temporal gaps in the prints and negatives, it is possible that more than a thousand images have not yet surfaced,” Bannos adds.
Such a line demonstrates Bannos’s method: She treats Maier’s photographs as material evidence, using them as clues to help solve a mystery. Just as important, she looks at them holistically, not as the one-off snapshots that Maloof cut from Maier’s negatives and sold individually on eBay. This way of reading Maier’s photographs gives us a more accurate and complete picture of her practice and, by extension, who she was. For example, discussing Maier’s yearlong trip to France, Bannos notes, “As Vivian Maier traveled through the region, she gathered small groups for her camera.… Always facing her subjects toward the bright sun, she consistently achieved the groups’ ease and cooperation.”
In this way, the myth of Maier’s aloofness is countered early on by an awareness of her ability to connect with people—a quality that helps explain her success as a nanny. In other places, Bannos reads sequences of images to illustrate how Maier lingered on or followed a scene to achieve a certain shot, or as Bannos calls it, her “stalking technique.” We can follow the photographs on long walks through Manhattan, in which Maier took pictures of homeless men on the Bowery and of her own reflection in mirrored doorways; a trip to Southeast Asia, where she shot indigenous villagers in the Philippines and a Malaysian family visiting a grave. Still more of her pictures plunge into the burned-out Chicago cityscape five days after the 1968 riots. “Vivian Maier’s photographs reveal her footsteps,” Bannos writes. The book allows us to walk in them.
The problem is that Maier’s footsteps are all we have of her—we don’t hear her voice or encounter substantive evidence of her ideas, thoughts, or artistic judgments. Aside from the brief descriptive and evaluative notations she made about her photos (“first time with cue light,” “comme si comme sa”), the quotes in the book that come from Maier herself are few and far between. (In a favorite of mine, from an audio recording she made in 1974, she says, “Women are supposed to be opinionated, I hope.”) The quotes from people who knew her offer impressions of her personality, but little insight into her psyche.
There is, in other words, a limit to what we can know about Vivian Maier. Bannos bravely attempts to circumvent this considerable obstacle by analyzing Maier’s photographs at length, but the overcompensation becomes tedious. Cleverly, Bannos places Maier’s biographical sketches alongside the contemporaneous history of photography—another critical addition of context and an intervention in the nanny-savant narrative—though it sometimes strays too far to be useful. Maier doesn’t appear to have had much formal training, but Bannos firmly portrays her as a product of a specific time and milieu. “At the end of the summer of 1950, a Kodak marketing research study found that about twenty-six million families—half of America’s households—used cameras,” Bannos writes. “Of those, about 90 percent owned box cameras or the type of folding camera that Maier likely used in Europe.”
Maier was clearly a product of the midcentury photography boom; however, she invested far more time and money in her hobby than one would expect of an amateur. This raises the book’s latent central question: Did Maier consider herself an artist? Without a sense of her subjectivity, there’s no way to answer it—though she seems to have fancied herself a photojournalist. “Maier shot public events as if she was on assignment, but there’s no evidence that she was working for anyone other than herself,” Bannos writes. (Later in life she also stopped people on the street to interview them in audio recordings like the one mentioned above.) Perhaps her lack of assignments and peers contributed to her eventual artistic stagnation, or maybe it was something else entirely. Either way, Bannos notes how, beginning in the mid-1960s, Maier’s trajectory diverged from the paths of other canonized photographers:
Corresponding to the chaotic and changing times, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand represented editorial photography’s counterculture. Yet while Vivian Maier’s photographs have been compared to theirs, Maier’s strategies stayed aligned with her earliest work, even as her repertoire broadened.
It was also around this time that she stopped developing some of her film, a habit that would grow in the following decades.
Bannos’s primary addition to Maier’s life story is an incredibly detailed retelling of the way her work has been dispersed, published, popularized, and fought over since her death in 2009 (hence the subtitle: “A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife”). She attempts to interweave these two narratives throughout the book. There are times, particularly in the second half, when the strategy works, as Maier’s movements sync up and resonate with moments in her public discovery; however, there are many more when the back-and-forth feels forced. The two tales often fail to inform each other in meaningful ways.
Yet there’s no question of the value of this endeavor, which clues us in to the often absurd drama that Maier’s photographs have inspired. (When Maloof and Goldstein teamed up to buy a cache of Maier’s work from Prow for $140,000, they sealed the deal in a mobster-inspired transaction that included “musclemen” and guns.) More important, Bannos lays bare the process by which we’ve come to know her subject, reminding us time and again that “Vivian Maier” is an image crafted by the people who bought, sold, and posthumously printed her work—not one that’s necessarily true to who Maier really was. “Vivian Maier’s biggest champions were people who had little knowledge or previous interest in the history of photography,” Bannos writes—people who did little to seek out scholarship and failed to consider the value of her body of work as a whole.
Several pages later, Bannos explains how, as Maier became more famous, she was removed as a subject from her own story:
Crafted by expert darkroom technicians and enhanced by vibrant paper stock, the new prints elevated Maier’s work. Full-frame reproductions of Maier’s posthumously edited negatives conjure comparisons to other photographers from their era; but none of the images that Maier had selected matched those that were now being chosen for her.
It’s harrowing then to read, dozens more pages later, about an episode concerning the book publisher Curt Matthews, who once employed Maier as a nanny. After viewing some of her pictures, he inquired about why she hadn’t pursued a career in photography. “She told me that if she had not kept her images secret, people would have stolen or misused them,” Matthews wrote. That line reverberates back through the book like a haunting judgment.
Maier was a private person who moved through the world by taking photographs. She left behind hundreds of thousands of them, in the form of prints, negatives, slides, and undeveloped rolls of film (not to mention motion-picture reels). The collection is so large that its public dissemination can feel justified, almost inevitable. But in many cases, Maier didn’t even see her own pictures beyond framing them in her viewfinder. Who’s to say she would have wanted the whole world looking at them?
One of Bannos’s most effective passages, near the end of the book, sums up the quandary that anyone searching for Vivian Maier must face: The people who knew her had vastly divergent impressions of her, sometimes to the point of outright contradiction. Maier was unknowable in life; it’s unclear why we think we can know her now.