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?”