Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny
(Atria Books, 2021)
Many of us watched the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier, and were charmed by the story of its elusive namesake au pair who took a lifetime of artful photographs, locked them in a storage facility, then defaulted on payment. Ann Marks watched it and saw a challenge. The film left many unresolved questions and Marks, a retired corporate executive, thought she could answer them. She reached out to John Maloof, the documentary’s producer and holder of the majority of Maier’s archive, and major Maier collector Jeffrey Goldstein. They each asked her to write a Maier biography.
“I became the only person in the world to examine their combined archive of 140,000 images,” Marks writes in her recently published Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny. Several of Maier’s street scenes snapped in New York and Chicago, French countryside panoramas, and portraits generously punctuate the resulting book, not just as demonstrations of her unmistakable talent but as mute witnesses to the stations of her eccentric life. While Marks boasts of having seen most Maier exposures, the photographer herself only ever saw 7,000 of them as prints, with 45,000 frames never developed (and the rest left as negatives).
Marks had unique access to this trove, but she wasn’t the only biographer taken with Maier’s story. Another biography was published by artist and researcher Pamela Bannos, Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife (University of Chicago Press, 2017), but the current book neither directly references nor includes it in its sources (an appendix briefly addresses controversies about Maier’s estate and discovery but doesn’t name the earlier biography). This strange omission appears like an intentional snub, as Bannos’s biography tackles the ethical questions surrounding how Maier’s work was posthumously dispersed, handled, and shared—largely by those who urged Marks to write the current biography and gave her access to the photographer’s work. (It’s perhaps no surprise then that Marks’s biography takes a similar critical approach as the documentary film.)
If Bannos’s major contribution to Maier scholarship is a comprehensive retelling of what happened to her work after her death, Marks’s crafts an image of Maier’s family before her birth. Marks pored over records to piece together Maier’s family tree and history, with one appendix detailing how she tracked down new sources, and another providing genealogical tips. At times, Vivian Maier Developed reads like a case study in genealogical research (which is Marks’s background). Marks found, for example, that Maier’s grandmother became pregnant with Maier’s mother as an unwed teenager, and that the biological father refused to marry or admit paternity. Then, Marks ardently contends that this “set into motion three generations of family dysfunction, the nature of which provides the key to unlocking the story of Vivian Maier.”
Pairing dysfunction with a family history of mental illness, the biography paints Maier as a tortured figure. And, as Marks tells it, it was mental illness that drove Maier to take thousands of images. She equates Maier’s image-collecting with her need to amass the other stuff that filled the suitcases and boxes in her storage locker—unread newspapers and old receipts. “Vivian had the resources to process her film, had she wished to do so. But ultimately, her need to possess was greater than her need to see her pictures,” Marks writes.
The biography does allow us to see and learn about many of these pictures, some that haven’t yet been explored in Maier’s decade in the involuntary limelight. Marks describes Maier’s impressive roster of celebrity snapshots, including Salvador Dalí, Cary Grant, John F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo, Marcel Marceau, Pope John Paul II, the king of Sweden, and John Wayne, among others. Another theme is Maier’s more-than-six-hundred self-portraits—the final one published in this book for the first time. (It was part of a 1996 roll of color film that Maier shot in Chicago; Maloof developed the roll in 2019 along with hundreds of others.) New self-portraits pop up whenever the archive is re-examined, since many hide in the reflective surfaces of tire hubs, vending machines, or rearview mirrors.
Each new attempt to develop Maier’s biography seems to reflect new things about her, too. “By book’s end, key questions will be answered, including the one everyone asks: ‘Who was Vivian Maier, and why didn’t she share her photographs?’ Mystery solved,” promises Marks in her introduction. But is it? Or does Maier’s mystery grow more cryptic the more we try to pin her down?
“I’m the mystery woman,” Maier said from behind the camera, in a home video she made with some of her wards. Marks may be a bit too eager to close the book on Vivian Maier.