I’ve been reading this new biography of Vivian Maier.
“Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny” (Atria, $40), by Ann Marks, a researcher and former chief marketing officer for the Wall Street Journal, bills itself as the definitive biography at last, as the whole deal in one book, the mysterious background, the 2007 discovery of a treasure trove of negatives, the story of how Maier spent decades trawling New York City and Chicago as a street photographer of unheralded talent. That epic, it’s here. And yet, that mystery grows unremarkable, and despite oodles of research and fresh material, “Vivian Maier Developed” never quite advances the narrative from Vivian Maier the Enigma to merely Vivian Maier the Artist.
Eventually it’ll happen.
Eventually we’ll focus on the work of Vivian Maier and set the origin and the puzzle and the discovery aside. Her photographs were too confident, too human, too thorough a peek into 20th century urban living. But at the moment, even with this new book, Maier stays a fuzzy character whose work gets overly conflated with the circumstances of a melancholy life. Every artist, of course, is conflated with the circumstances of their life. But the discovery and surprise of Vivian Maier remains so central, we can’t move on. In other words, despite ranging childhood to death, laying it all out with care and clarity, here is an undeveloped life, waiting for an authoritative, critical assessment. Which is what Marks sets out to do; she moves in the right direction. Maier’s photos are sprinkled on page after page, with nuggets of insights on most, along with a welcome discussion of Maier’s relationship to her fellow photographers, and a better look at the ideas that inhabited Maier’s world. (A quick study of her Catholic influences is particularly useful.)
But it’s an odd book, haphazardly organized — many of the controversies linked with Maier’s discovery, an assessment of her staying power, even some of her history are never woven into that story but saved for a lengthy appendix. So we get leaps where gaps appear. Marks writes that Maier was “one of the lucky ones,” spared the scrutiny of the living artist, now celebrated “without undergoing artistic criticism or compromise, or the need to market one’s work.” Which suggests a legacy more radical than the images Maier made. By keeping her creative life secret, and rarely showing anything, you might even argue that Maier was spared the feedback that might have led to new directions.
By the end, Marks asks: What will Vivian Maier’s legacy be?
Her answer, dear God, is: “Only time will tell.”
Regardless of what you think of her photographs, regardless of the attention she has received in the 12 years since her work became known, Vivian Maier deserves better than we have given her. We have granted her fame and fascination — “Finding Vivian Maier,” a 2013 documentary (co-directed by her discoverer John Maloof) was nominated for an Oscar. But that’s not the same as appreciation. It’s a distracted understanding of a mountain of work. I’m no photography critic; or even a book critic. But as someone captivated by Maier’s photos who wondered what I was looking at, I come away from “Vivian Maier Developed” still uncertain why she mattered, or how this work compares with, say, Gary Winogrand or Robert Frank, to name two photographers who shared Maier’s attention to social justice and plain ordinary existence. Marks offers a handful of outside ideas from the New York Times — nay, yea, meh — then moves on.
If I sound disappointed, I am — personally.
I’d like to claim Vivian Maier, too. I live in a building in Rogers Park alongside where Maier lived, and when I moved here, soon after she collapsed on a Chicago sidewalk, banged her head then died in 2009, I heard from neighbors that she was a fixture in local parks. Someone tells Marks that Maier glided around Chicago on her bike, camera at her neck, looking “like the Wicked Witch of the West.” Indeed, I heard this same thing, that Maier, prim, long face, conservatively dressed, was Margaret Hamilton-ish.
It’s here Marks makes her finest contributions to the legend, digging into Maier’s personality and filling in family history, even as it becomes clear from Maier’s decades of silence and secrecy, she probably never wanted to be known, or even thought about. Maier was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in a mountain village of France. Relatives there remember her as like “an extraterrestrial,” private and unknowable. Even after she moved to Chicago as an adult, and went to work as a Highland Park nanny — for the Gensburgs, heirs to the Chicago Coin pinball company — a friend recalls Maier being “more a persona than a personality.” Though from Marks reporting, that’s not quite right, either. Maier had plenty of personality. She seemed to move to Chicago to start a life even more anonymous than what came before. She was paranoid and unfriendly. When she became a live-in nanny for a Wilmette family, her room “was so stuffed with newspapers that the floor had buckled from their weight.” One of the children that she cared for remembers Maier throwing away a favorite puppet because, to Maier, the toy had shaved legs and therefore resembled a prostitute.
Marks even explains how Maier used petroleum jelly on her hair, attracting their fated family parrot, which then learned “the hard way that lubricants can be toxic to birds.”
“Who was Vivian Maier, and why didn’t she share her photographs?” the author asks.
And answers: “Mystery solved.”
Maier was “hardwired to conceal,” concluding “no one would want to learn their nanny had an unstable, narcissistic mother; a violent, alcoholic father; and a drug-addicted, schizophrenic brother.” Photography was an “emotional outlet.” Sure, yes, but one day:
How about those pictures?