“There are no answers without questions”
This is the story of an autodidact: an unknown photographer who, unbeknownst to her, becomes a global phenomenon, and yet remains impossible to track even as the whole world is enthralled by her photographs. This story began in 2007 with John Maloof, a twenty-five-year-old real-estate agent, who, at a blind auction, bought tens of thousands of negatives, and quickly realized they had a lot of potential — especially when Allan Sekula bought a few prints and suggested that he should not post this work on Flickr.
The market went wild: experts, exhibitions, books… Everyone was in agreement about the find, even the New York Times spoke of “a new candidate for the pantheon of great 20th-century street photographers.” Yet Vivian Maier lived on in total anonymity, and it was only an obituary in 2009 announcing her death at age eighty-three, that gave a first clue to the buyer. Now an investigation could begin.
John Maloof recounts and reenacts his discovery in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2015. This was a feat in itself, but the story had only just begun. Maloof sums up all the questions sparked by this unknown woman. Born in 1926, she had spent her life photographing the world without ever promoting her work: of the 140,000 shots, only 5% were developed. This body of work was unknown even to its author.
What followed seems like a dream sequence. Vivian Maier’s existence pushed the limits of the imagination: her whimsical, but strong headed personality comes across in the archives which she knowingly abandoned in an unpaid storage unit, triggering much speculation. Was it for lack of financial means or was it folly? For Ann Marks, “there are no answers without questions.” After obtaining full access to the archives, she tackled the myth.
Her investigation took six years. She questioned, identified, and reconstructed the story, the chronology, the places, and the protagonists. From all the clues and testimonies, she reconstituted a genealogy built on lies and family secrets. The life of the deceased woman is retraced in the form of a fresco. Marks’s patient, attentive book reveals the ins and outs of a family of French origin tragically divided between a dysfunctional mother, a romantic grandmother, a schizophrenic brother, and a resigned father. This is Vivian Maier’s heritage, a heritage that she would be running from all her life (to the point of falsifying her IDs). Without this insight, it is difficult to grasp the profound consequences and the origins of this unclassifiable personality.
The portrait of an iconoclast
Without family or support, Vivian Maier could only rely on herself. She accepted her condition, without being hostage to it, and declared to one of her employers: “some people live to work, I work to live.” After a stint at a doll factory (which is not at all anecdotal), she gained her independence by working as a nanny, a position she held through the rest of her life. This is an unlikely career for someone who refused any physical (and emotional) contact and who had the habit of disappearing from people’s lives without ever trying to see them again. Some of the testimonies are poignant, we can see a taciturn woman, difficult to access, full of paradoxes, but above all a creative power inextricably linked to photography. The children in her care retain precise memories (sometimes tender, sometimes bitter) of the photographic expeditions which they were roped into, and the skill with which their nanny solicited their collaboration.
Ann Marks describes an intrepid woman with an original style and an absolute sense of discretion. She “always wore a hat, even indoors,” rubbed Vaseline into her hair, rode a Solex moped, and throughout her life wore midi skirts paired with Liberty shirts and shoes size 46 (she was 5’7″). She is not known to have ever been in a romantic relationship. As we read on, Vivian’s character emerges from the descriptions: her playfulness, her malice, her self-confidence, but also her complexes, her research, her abrasive sense of humor. And her solitude.
The book digs even deeper: by delving into Vivian Maier’s grievances, it addresses her psychology, and in particular her mental illness, often denied or minimized. She was a misanthrope and an obsessive. She fought all her life against a pathology called “compulsive accumulation.” Her successive employers describe an uninhabitable room, “stacked with newspapers floor to ceiling, with small pathways in between.” At the end of her life, she left behind 9 tons of personal items in unpaid storage: costume jewelry, political badges, African objects, crystals, photos, official documents, and piles of negatives… This oversized cabinet of curiosities was kept under lock and key. No one was allowed in. The author interviewed psychiatrists to highlight a form of paranoia in Vivian’s dark personality: she cultivated secrecy and stubbornly refused to show her pictures, which suggested that “her need to possess was stronger than her need to see her images.” Marks thus proposes a psychoanalytical reading of Vivian Maier’s work and formulates some hypotheses. If caution is required, it is the key that unlocks the narrative.
This personality disorder associated with an acute form of syllogomania affected Vivian’s entire life. Doctors point to abuse she may have suffered in childhood. She was content to admit: “I have been around a lot.” In light of all this new information, we get a sense of Vivian Maier who arranged her life as best she could to stay afloat and carry on her photographic quest. What emerges are her repressed needs and her obsessive-compulsive disorder, which she perceived as pure eccentricity, but also the resilience of a woman who adopted a fantasy lifestyle and who, in photography, found “a different kind of relationship: the ability to establish connections, but at a safe distance.”
Another paradox is that Vivian systematically refused to let herself be photographed. She preferred her self-portraits and has taken more than six hundred of them. Was it modesty, a desire to preserve her anonymity (and thus protect herself from her family), or was it the need to always remain in control of her image? Whatever the case may be, these self-portraits are an object of study in themselves, because they reflect the development of her condition and the different periods in her life. Anne Morin, curator of the exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, comments: “The self-portrait allowed Vivian to produce an irrefutable proof of her presence in a world in which she had no place.” Some photographs depict her as a spy: it is a role that she knew how to play.
A dauntless woman at work
What do John Paul II, Muhammad Ali, the Apollo 15 astronauts, and Greta Garbo have in common? They are among the long list of celebrities captured by Vivian Maier. The photographer was able to gain access to crime scenes and to document strip clubs. Although she never had a press pass, Vivian was a professional. She could even get arrested just to get a good picture.
At a time when counterculture in America was all the rage in Greenwich Village art circles, Vivian Maier was going against the current. She spent her free time photographing everyday details. She put all her intelligence and sense of irony into her method. She was just as passionate about a birthday party in a park as about the tenderness of a couple sitting back-to-back, or the face of a worker photographed head-on. Her humanist touch is not limited to any subject: Maier developed a sociological approach of great modernity. She also stayed on the cutting edge by favoring a Leica and switching to color ahead of her time. Her photographs possess an uncanny precision and timelessness.
Those who remember her speak of “a woman on a mission,” a sense widely shared by those around her, because she commanded respect. Vivian Maier was a committed woman. A feminist before her time, she closely followed racial conflicts, transcribed the world of graffiti, documented social inequalities, and went so far as to steal her employers’ mail if it had anything to do with the Republicans. She closely followed the Watergate. She was fascinated by newspaper headlines (which she photographed), by signs and slogans, like the one in the photograph below: “Men must change or die.”
Her convictions were coupled with an unbridled passion for local crime reports, which evokes the world of Weegee. In the 1970s, her address book contained only two numbers: the New York Times delivery service and a Leica dealer in New Jersey. Ann Marks paints an amusing mise-en-abyme: “If she had read [her own] story in a newspaper, Vivian would surely have loved the spiciness of it, the controversy set against a backdrop of class difference, the triumph of the working class, all the twists and turns.”
Marks’s study of Vivian Maier’s work, and the way it meshed with her personal journey, leads to some revealing connections. Maier’s experiences, obsessions, emotions, and her sense of humor found their way into her pictures. We observe a recurrent practice that is quite symptomatic: men are systematically mocked, while the elderly are treated with great tenderness… Who said that it was necessary to separate the work from its author?
Maier’s work truly came into its own when she was in her thirties. She had honed her eye and had become an expert at tracking down stories, which she often captured at one go. Her innate sense of timing is revealed in photographs that are almost too good to be true. In 1959, when she was thirty-six, she decided to undertake something that, in retrospect, seems crazy: Vivian Maier set out on a world tour. It might be hard to fathom the willfulness of this professional nanny who ventured not just to Europe but also to Asia and Africa in the middle of the Cold War: a lone woman, armed with her camera, surveying Thailand, Egypt, China, India, and even Yemen. As unlikely as it may sound, she did it. She returned to the United States with a very accomplished portfolio, and, following several months of absence, resumed her job with a family that didn’t suspect a thing. She never said a word about her odyssey to her employers or to the children who were happy to have her back. What did they think? How did she manage to keep this journey, and her pride at having seen the world, to herself?
Vivian Maier never broke out of her silence, and her isolation only grew. After sixteen years with the same family, she went her own way, growing less and less stable and finding herself in ever more precarious circumstances. During the final years of her life, she was trapped in a downward spiral. With nothing else to her name but stacks of boxes, she crossed paths with the three Gensburg boys she had watched grow up. Guided by an undying tenderness towards their former nanny, they looked after her and her affairs during Vivian Maier’s last, particularly painful, months. She had slipped on a patch of ice and needed to be hospitalized. This was very traumatic to someone who may have never consulted a doctor. The obituary written by the three brothers does not appear in the book, but it is revealing: “Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.”
Ann Marks’s book paints an intimate portrait of the photographer, accompanied by images that build up a crescendo of emotion once you understand the context of their production. The down-to-earth, fact-oriented writing style sometimes comes across as a dense, continuous stream of information. But the author’s care to retrace the life and the psychological motivation of the artist is a great accomplishment. We will never be able to unlock all of Vivian Maier’s secrets or fully understand her motivations, her pride, her obstinacy, her doubts, or her desires.
The Vivian enigma remains an enigma, even if this first biography sheds some light on the mystery. One thing is certain: Vivian Maier knew her worth; she knew that she was leaving behind a demanding body of work, and her peremptory and brilliant instructions to the lab assistants are proof of this. In the 1960s, she once said to her French friend Amédée Simon: “I have made piles of photos — when I say piles, I mean piles — and I think they are really quite good.”
Par Clara Bastid
Clara Bastid is a Development officer at La Gaîté Lyrique, in Paris, and an independent exhibition curator.
Ann Marks, Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny, Simon & Schuster, 368pp, $40.