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Vivian Maier, the Photographer Who Wanted to Go Unobserved

Maier didn’t want people to know where she lived, and often lied about her personal history.

Vivian Maier took a lot of self-portraits, but for whom? Albert Mobilio once described her as “her own unwilling subject.” She appears to have liked incorporating mirrors — and the photographer in the mirror — more as a formal exercise than an attempt at self-revelation or self-examination. We now know of her work because her possessions were purchased at auction after she’d stop paying for the storage spaces in which she kept decades’ worth of prints, negatives, and undeveloped film, thousands upon thousands of frames in all. Eight years after her death in 2009 — just around the time some of her imagery was starting to seep out via the internet — and six years after the first exhibitions of her work began to draw serious attention, she is famous, but still unknown. Possibly that’s how she would have liked it. She depicted herself, Mobilio noticed, as “aloof and contentedly so.”

Now a biography has appeared, and its author, Pamela Bannos, has trawled through the archives to find new facts and clear up misunderstandings. Most importantly, she examined as much of Maier’s work as she could get her hands on in order to trace her movements, sometimes minute by minute, from the time she first picked up a camera through the 1970s, when her photographic record starts to peter out, either because Maier stopped working as assiduously as she had for so many years, or because later works were lost in the dispersal of her stored archive. One surprise is that Maier was not simply a “street photographer” of New York and Chicago; she traveled extensively in order to take pictures. A 1959 trip took her around the world, starting with a train journey to Los Angeles, heading by ship from there to the Philippines and through Asia to Europe and then back to the States via New York. Quite a holiday for a someone living on a nanny’s wages, but a serious working trip for a photographer.

And yet, for all the information Bannos has managed to dig up, Maier still remains an unknown. Aside from what we can glean from the images that have come to us under her name — and it is important to keep in mind that these photographs were always selected and often printed by others, and when printed by others not cropped according to her specifications — we still have virtually no trace of her inner life. Where other 20th-century artists have left us voluminous clues to their artistic intentions by way of statements, interviews, and letters, not to mention the testimony of spouses, children, assistants, dealers, students, and so on, Maier remains as mute as the painters of Lascaux or the stone carvers of Reims Cathedral. It’s amazing how a researcher as assiduous as Bannos has been unable to find a single person who ever had a serious conversation with Maier about her art, nor to find any written reflections of Maier’s own beyond random notations like “not bad” on folders of negatives.

So why read a biography of Maier? Good question, but then maybe it was the author’s mistake to conceive of this book as a biography in any case. As its subtitle, “A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife” subtly implies, there are really two stories here, and the tangled story of the afterlife — that is, of what happened after her storage spaces were seized and sold off and her work was shepherded into the public sphere that she had always avoided — takes up half the book.

Another significant portion, the weakest, consists of potted summaries of the 20th-century photographic history that Maier was evidently well aware of but never attempted to enter, supplemented by snippets of general cultural history (which Bannos handles with less aplomb: No — to cite one example — The Great Gatsby did not “detail posh living in the Hamptons” — the towns he called East and West Egg actually stood in for Great Neck and Port Washington). That leaves as the book’s core the frame by frame tracing of Maier’s movements through life, which, given the lack of biographical heft, should have been the text for a picture book — something that the uncertain copyright status of Maier’s work has presumably made impossible for now.

Maier might have been happy that her work has become known, but not herself. Bannos calls attention to her fascination with photographing people asleep; surely this has much to do with the fact that she could observe them without herself being seen. She didn’t even want people to know where she lived, using a PO box to receive her mail rather than a home address; when working as a live-in nanny, she would demand a lockable bedroom door. She often lied about her personal history.

One thing that can be said with certainty about Maier is that she was a hoarder. The families who took her on as a live-in nanny were astonished by the hundreds of boxes that arrived with her and went into their garages, and they worried that the newspapers she piled up in her room could be a fire hazard. Her amassed photographic record that was never to be seen, eventually even by herself, clearly became part of this. Bannos quotes Allan Sekula: “She must have hated the darkroom, and simply let her unprocessed film accumulate: it’s a weird short-circuit in a typical photographer’s working process.” As with Garry Winogrand in his later work, the activity of taking photographs outstripped the importance of the photographs themselves. And yet the photographs are important. The most important lesson of Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife is that Maier’s pictures still hold much more to be seen.

Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife by Pamela Bannos (2017), published by University of Chicago Press, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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