Biography of a secretive photographer who became legendary after her death.
In 2007, Vivian Maier (1926-2009) failed to make payments on five storage lockers in Chicago, causing the owner to offer its contents—hundreds of boxes—at auction. The boxes contained material from decades of hoarding: books, magazines, newspapers, and, most astonishingly, photographs—albums, prints, negatives, color slides, and more than 1,000 rolls of undeveloped film. By the time Maier died two years later, two of the buyers, Jeffrey Goldstein and real estate businessman John Maloof, already had initiated what was to become a lucrative “Vivian Maier Industrial Complex,” selling, exhibiting, and promoting Maier’s photographs and turning her into a celebrity. In her debut biography, Bannos (Art Theory and Practice/Northwestern Univ.) offers a cleareyed investigation of Maier’s life, aiming to penetrate the myths surrounding her and to assess her stature as an artist. In a website, several monographs, and a movie, Maloof significantly shaped the myth of Maier as “a mysterious French nanny who was also, secretly, a photographer.” Although Maloof did not cooperate with Bannos in her research, the thousands of images he published on his website supplemented more than 20,000 images from other collections, which Bannos attentively analyzed. Maier did earn a living as a nanny in New York and Chicago, but her work as a photographer dominated her life. Even when she had children in her care, she hung a camera around her neck and engaged in “purposeful” sightseeing in the U.S. and abroad. She refused to exhibit her photographs, though, and she “selectively, sometimes imaginatively, addressed any questions about her past.” Families who employed her found her eccentric, demanding, opinionated and, as she aged, paranoid. In alternating chapters, Bannos juxtaposes Maier’s biography with her afterlife. She effectively contextualizes Maier’s aesthetics within the history of photography, and she makes a persuasive case for her talent and originality. In the end, though, the author is left with unanswered questions about Maier’s personal life, her motivations to photograph, and her artistic aims.
A sympathetic portrait of an artist who remains elusive.