decaturmemories

Catching Memories Through The Lens

The Art of Vivian Maier – The Nation


During the first Covid lockdown, I, like so many other people, took to wandering my neighborhood alone, observing details that I might otherwise have glossed over. Perfectly black irises in an otherwise colorful garden; street graffiti declaring “Black Lives Matter”; a root shoving up from beneath the sidewalk; the house down the street with seven-foot-long wooden dinosaur skeletons in the front yard; handmade posters stapled to telephone poles demanding that the state “Cancel Rent.” I took pictures of my shoes next to cracks in the sidewalk, fallen flowers, and, later, autumn leaves—and I took lots of pictures of myself, of course. I sent them to friends by text and WhatsApp or posted them to Instagram, where we all filled our grids with strangely empty cityscapes and wilderness. Did we record these images for ourselves or for the friends we were no longer able to see? Did we post them to feel connected or just to remember that we were still alive?

I thought of all this while reading Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny, Ann Marks’s new book on the woman who became posthumously famous in the early 2010s for her beautiful and haunting street photography. So many of us became Vivian Maiers during the pandemic, wandering streets between the day’s work and taking pictures of anything and everything that struck us as pretty or funny or strange. Like Maier, we took photos not because we hoped to become famous artists or commercial photographers; we took them because we all had cameras in our pockets and nothing else to do.

In the 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier, John Maloof, credited with the titular discovery, goes searching for the woman whose beautiful photographs he bought at a storage auction, talking to her friends, her former employers, the children (now grown) that she cared for, a living relative. For him the question, above all others, was: Why didn’t Maier share her amazing works of art with others? Professional artists appear on-screen to declare that “had she made herself known, she would have become a famous photographer,” as if it is easy to make oneself known, as if “sharing” is something that today’s art world is even interested in, revolving as it does around asset purchases by the wealthy finessed by a legion of gatekeepers. Meanwhile, others wonder on-screen why Maier didn’t even share them with her family and friends—what was her motivation for taking these pictures?

Maloof and many of his interviewees are mostly confounded by these questions, but more confounded still by the idea that this great photographer was also a domestic worker. In Vivian Maier Developed, Marks also takes up these questions. A self-described “former corporate executive,” Marks sets out, detective-like, to uncover the story behind the photographs. “For me,” she writes, “no detail is inconsequential, and no question is left unanswered. My greatest passion is solving quotidian mysteries—the more convoluted, the better.” But her book still treats Maier’s life and art as a riddle to be solved rather than as the complicated and contradictory products of a formidable intellect. Marks may abandon Maloof’s thinly veiled contempt for Maier’s day job, but she nonetheless seems unable to situate Maier in a broader cultural and economic context, preferring to hunt for clues in her biography and even biology. Like Maloof, she misses the tension that could animate Maier’s story: that artists are not, in fact, from a different world, but live right here and do the tasks of social reproduction just like the rest of us.

Who was Vivian Maier? She was born in New York City in 1926 to a French immigrant mother and German Lutheran father, and her youth was divided between New York and a rural French village. She had an unstable home life: Her parents separated when she was young, and neither one was around much. What stability she did have came from her maternal grandmother, Eugenie, who found work in the homes of the wealthy as a cook. Because Eugenie, like many immigrant workers, had to put her job before her family, the emotional support she provided came with limits, and Maier and her mother often found a home with family friends—including the photographer Jeanne Bertrand, who was probably responsible for giving her access to a camera for the first time.

At age 6, Maier returned to France with her mother, beginning a relationship with the Champsaur Valley and her mother’s family that would inspire much of her photographic work. By age 12, she was back in New York, leaving France just ahead of World War II and returning to a city where, again, except for time spent with Eugenie, she was left to her own devices as a teenager and young adult.

What Marks calls Maier’s “forty-year career in photography” began when she returned to the Champsaur in 1950, age 24. She had come to settle a small inheritance, which gave her the freedom to spend her time photographing seemingly every inch of the valley and its people. In her early photographs, one can see her aesthetic and political judgments shaping up: attention to children and to the working class, interest in a communist rally and a film shoot, and plenty of self-portraits.

The inheritance mostly settled, Maier returned to New York and eventually secured a job as a governess to support herself and her photographic habit when her nest egg ran out. The caring jobs gave her flexibility and even made travel possible; she went to Cuba with one family and joined another on a cross-country road trip, taking pictures all the while. And she did so without much contact with the art world. At certain moments in her life—particularly when she lived in New York and later in California—Maier did spend time with other photographers, jostling for position in photo pools, shooting portraits of artists, and planning to create prints for sale. But most of the massive trove of work she produced in these years was for herself alone: 45,000 of her photos were never even developed, let alone printed.

Throughout these years, Maier may have been trying, though erratically, to become a professional photographer, but her ambition to make a living from her pictures seems to have waned by the time she reached Chicago in 1956. From then on, she continued to photograph and stockpile her pictures, but fewer of her clients seemed to know about their nanny’s creative pastime. Toward the end of her life, acquaintances commented on the sheer volume of stuff Maier had amassed, but few seemed to wonder if it could be worth anything. By the time she died, in 2009, at age 83, collectors had already begun to discover these photos, but Maier was never to know.

To be an artist, does someone have to view your work? Perhaps not—but to be recognized by the world as an artist, your work has to be deemed “art” by the kinds of people who are expected to make such judgments: gallery owners, collectors, other artists. Both Maloof and Marks subtly acknowledge this, marshaling famed photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz to explain why Maier’s work is valuable. Would it be possible for an unknown author like Marks to write a biography of an unknown nanny without “art” being involved? Unlikely.

For Marks, this “discovery” of Maier as an artist is as much the story as Maier’s own life is. She cheerily describes it as a tale of “colorful characters whose skills, tenacity, and scrappiness revealed [Maier’s] talent to the world,” but it is also a story about the contradictions in how our society values art. We expect artists to work for the love of it but are confounded by Maier’s seeming lack of interest in profiting from her pictures. Art is supposed to be its own reward, but Marks and Maloof and many of their art world interlocutors are baffled that Maier did not seek other rewards. We say that artists are those naturally endowed with special talent, yet that talent usually needs to be credentialed through an often expensive process of art school and galleries and wealthy collectors making purchases.

Indeed, by the time Maier’s photographs had been “discovered,” she had only a few years left to live and had stopped paying rent on the storage lockers where her photos were stashed. Maloof only found out the basic details of her life from her obituary and then reached out to the Gensburgs, her former clients, who had still more lockers full of photos. Maloof was able to persuade them to give him the whole stash rather than toss it, and shortly thereafter, he put on the first show of Maier’s work at the Chicago Cultural Center. Would she have wanted such a show? Those who knew her are conflicted; some say yes and others no. And the art world generates a different problem from this question: If Maier did not develop and print her own work, are the prints from her negatives authentic Vivian Maiers? Of course, artists do not create alone, and many famous photographers outsourced their printing—but without Maier there to supervise, how do we know she’d have considered the work hers? Then again, she had often simply dropped off her film at a neighborhood store, the same kind of place that most of us, in the pre-iPhone days, would have taken a roll of snapshots.

We should also ask: If Maier had created her pictures as a professional photographer would, making choices based on what might sell or who might buy, would her art have been the same? We can understand any piece of art, as the sociologist Howard Becker explains in his book Art Worlds, “as the product of a choice between conventional ease and success and unconventional trouble and lack of recognition.” But when you don’t aspire for recognition, might you make altogether different kinds of artistic choices?

The real star of Vivian Maier Developed, of course, is Maier’s photography. Marks’s book contains many photos, from color self-portraits to haunting black-and-white close-ups to cityscapes and Alpine landscapes. The artist’s unflinching eye calls to mind Diane Arbus, but Maier took up her camera a decade before Arbus’s rise to fame. Like Arbus, she trained her lens repeatedly on the unbeautiful, the poor, and the marginalized. Marks is ambivalent about Maier’s attention to these subjects, sometimes lauding her for choosing to photograph the “downtrodden” and at other times chiding her for “voyeurism.” She applauds Maier for treating poor Black and Native children just like rich white ones, as if this were surprising, but at the same time describes some of Maier’s other work as “predatory” and intrusive. Such an assumption—rather a lot from someone who is writing the life story of a person who may never have wanted the public attention in the first place—reminds us that art is still often seen as a masculine endeavor, that it is hard for so many to imagine that the skills that made Maier a good nanny also made her a great photographer. As Marks herself puts it: “Everyone mattered to Vivian.” She snapped celebrities and politicians, posed acquaintances like models, and captured the emotion, up close and personal, on the faces of small children. Rather than “predatory,” the word most of her pictures call to mind is “intimate.” The closeness to her subjects often feels less like a violation and more like an act of care.

A pair of photos taken a couple of months apart in 1951 and ’52 illustrate this dynamic. The first is a portrait of a Cuban worker with a mustache and a straw hat, shot on the trip that Maier took with an employer; the second is of Salvador Dalí, a slight scowl behind his famous mustache. Both men are shot from an angle that gives them a heroic stature, the worker as much as the legendary artist. Taking photos like this requires not predatory aggression but equal parts confidence and concern.

The question that haunts Marks’s book is, at bottom, the same one that haunted Maloof’s movie: Why didn’t Maier “share” her work? What neither of them quite grasps is that the question they are really asking is why she didn’t make money from it. Marks shows that early in her adult life, Maier had plans, though they were not realized, to start a postcard business, citing Maier’s letters to a French colleague who’d made samples from her landscapes. When she returned to New York, Maier purchased an expensive, professional-quality Rolleiflex camera designed for shots from the hip. She seems, too, to have occasionally sold prints for $1, though her haphazard record-keeping makes it unclear how many and to whom, and to have photographed the families she worked for. In one case, she took promotional photos of the steak house her clients owned. Marks also finds evidence that later in Maier’s life, her acquaintances sent her information about freelance work and a former employer wrote to her saying that she hoped Maier “would find an audience for her photography and collections.”

For Marks, the main hindrance to a photographic career was Maier’s perfectionism, but there are many other conclusions one could draw. The bits of information sprinkled throughout the book that indicate that Maier had connections and was recognized by others as a photographer—such as the fact, dropped on page 166 with no explanation and never mentioned again, that she “had a direct line to the Playboy Club’s publicity department”—do as much to undermine Marks’s preferred explanations as to support them. Despite Marks’s confident assertions, it remains unclear why Maier never became a full-time professional. Did she feel disheartened by her early attempts to become one? Did she decide instead to “work to live,” taking jobs as a nanny that allowed her to ramble, charges in tow, and snap whatever she wished? Did she shoot celebrities exiting the Playboy Club or on movie sets as work, or because she was a fan? Did the employers who expressed shock that she didn’t “share her photographs” ever offer to pay her for her creative work? To these questions, we have few answers.

Part of the problem is that Marks and Maloof cannot imagine why a talented photographer might choose a career as a care worker. Maloof’s film is laced with contempt for care workers; he snickers as he asks “why is a nanny” taking photographs, as if it’s inconceivable for the working class to have hobbies. Marks is not so much contemptuous of Maier’s care work as simply uninterested in why it might have appealed to her, or at least why it might have been the best of a bad set of options. Marks lays the story of Maier’s “family dysfunction” on thick, diving down a rabbit hole on her grandmother’s marriage and her mother’s and brother’s mental illnesses. But she misses some of the reasons why nannying may have filled a gap in Maier’s life. In a family that often treated her “as if she were wallpaper,” Marks writes, care may have been in short supply; by contrast, her most functional relative, her grandmother Eugenie, secured a decent life looking after the needs of the rich, and care work offered a kind of freedom that the other jobs open to a working-class woman of the time did not.

Marks also seems uninterested in the overlapping skill sets that Maier might have developed as a nanny and a photographer. Like most nannies, she would have been expected to lavish her charges with love and affection while receiving little in return. But it seems to occur to no one that Maier used the same skills to comfort her charges and to set a subject at ease, to fade into the background of her employers’ lives and to be an unobtrusive street photographer. Marks briefly notes that Maier’s “dispassionate demeanor” helped her photography by “diminishing her own presence,” but this too is a skill in the care laborer’s toolkit.

Whether Maier’s employers—some of whom were photographers or media personalities, including the talk show host Phil Donahue—took her photography seriously enough to see it as a bonus when they hired her, an extra skill to be exploited, or whether Maier sought out jobs in creative families, is perhaps unknowable. But in Marks’s book these are just more items in a jumble of details, as is the fact that at least one of Maier’s charges grew up to be a photographer herself.

The family that Maier was closest to, the Gensburgs, employed her for 11 years and remained close to her until the end of her life, cosigning for her final apartment and taking responsibility for her cremation. They, at least, described her lovingly, and photos of the family show Maier being uncharacteristically affectionate with the children. While other clients described her as standoffish—one claimed to never have known her name, referring to her only as “Mademoiselle”—the Gensburgs embraced her adventurousness, and leaving them seems to have been traumatic for Maier.

The philosopher Eva Kittay, in Love’s Labor, describes a life like Maier’s as one characterized by a “dialectic of dependency,” in which women are able to enter public space by taking on paid care work, even though such work stigmatizes them as dependents themselves, not part of “the fraternity of equals in political life,” even as it grants them other freedoms. When the paid caring relationship ends, as most of them do, the worker is left out in the cold, cut off from the home and family that until recently was theirs. When a family no longer needed a nanny, did Maier no longer need them? The Gensburgs, unlike many of her employers, seem to have recognized their debt to her. But the work that Maier did and the care she poured into it was often discarded quickly. What effect did her disposability have on her psyche and on her art?

The question of mental illness hangs over Marks’s portrait of Maier, intertwined with the question of why she kept her photos to herself. An early incident that Marks describes finds an employer complaining, “Mademoiselle must be mentally ill. Why else would she refuse to make copies? Making copies is how you make money with photography.” Disability, as Sunny Taylor and others have written, often makes one “unproductive” by the rules of capitalism, and many seem to have reversed this framework in their analysis of Maier: If she decided that she didn’t want to “make money with photography,” she must have had an impairment.

At times Marks seems to agree, though she ties herself in knots to argue more than this: that Maier was severely mentally ill, that she would have been a successful photographer if she hadn’t been so afflicted, yet also that she “lived the life she wanted to live” and would not want readers’ pity or their concern about her wishes regarding her work after her death. Maier, Marks writes, was considered “strange” and “abnormal” and a person with “underdeveloped social skills,” even if, Marks also notes, she showed “mastery at guiding conversations and deflecting questions.” Some of the children Maier cared for speculate about her discomfort with men and recall her intense reaction to being photographed when she was not in control of the picture, in one case apparently hitting a man with an umbrella. Marks also consults mental health experts to diagnose Maier posthumously. The use of the qualifier “may have” does a lot of work in these sections, as does the phrase “as if”: “It was as if she possessed a form of post-traumatic stress disorder related to potentially threatening men.” And at the end of the book, Marks simply states it as fact: “It was trauma and mental illness that drove many of her critical choices.”

Marks will no doubt consider me, in writing this, another part of the “well-intended art and feminist communities” who “drove matters offtrack early on by voicing long-standing biases against the attribution of mental illness to explain artists’ talent or women’s decision-making.” But I must raise the same challenge that Rose Lichter-Marck did in her excellent New Yorker review of Finding Vivian Maier in 2014: Why must we explain women’s unconventional lives “in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference”?

What is missing from Marks’s version of Maier’s life is, of course, the politics—or rather, it is scattered throughout her book like the political buttons found in Maier’s trove. Marks’s casual dismissal of “well-intended” feminist critiques is of a piece with her casual reference to Maier’s political worldview as “communist, socialist, and libertarian” (again, without evidence or explanation). It is simply not interesting to her as a biographer that Maier seems to have identified with the working class, or how those political views might have been shaped by her experiences as a nanny and an artist—and, in turn, may have shaped her photographic output and her decision, perhaps, to keep her photos to herself. Likewise, Marks makes casual reference to Maier’s feminism, but finds it useless as an analytical tool with which to understand her life.

Yet her politics is very much a part of what made Maier exceptional. At the height of the Red Scare, and before the civil rights struggle broke into the national headlines, she seems to have sought out leftist politics, identified as a feminist, supported Black freedom organizations and Native rights, and not only photographed children of color who were “just as charming,” in Marks’s words, as the rich white children she tended, but sought out political discussion and debate and even sabotaged her employers’ attempts to support right-wing causes. She covered labor rallies and political events like a journalist, even carrying a tape recorder to ask strangers and friends their opinions on the events of the day. “Many have observed that Vivian possessed an underdog’s perspective, and regardless of her circumstances, she identified primarily with the working class,” Marks notes, and Maier “kept literature like the ‘Bill of Rights for Working People’ and a critique of Washington Post union busting in storage.”

How these political views might have shaped her art and care work is, like so many other aspects of Maier’s story, not really a question we can answer. But it is in thinking politically—as Maier herself did—that we find the real challenges she poses. We should not treat her as an individual puzzle to be solved by digging up genealogies and photo store receipts, or view art as the domain of a select elite. What if the real lesson of Maier’s life as an artist and care worker and immigrant and politically active person is, following C.L.R. James’s assertion (written in 1956, as Maier was photographing Chicago with the Gensburgs in tow) that “every cook can govern,” it is also true that every nanny can make great art.

The story of Vivian Maier, then, is not a story about why one woman chose (or did not choose) to become an artist, but rather a story about how we all have art locked inside of us somewhere, how we are all capable of seeing and capturing the humanity of those around us, and that while only a few of us are ever lucky enough to be allowed the time and space for that art to come out and be recognized and pronounced “good” by the world, we can still go out onto the street with the cameras that nearly all of us carry now and, for just a moment, create a picture of something beautiful, whether we share it with the world or someone special or just keep it to ourselves. What if we understood that all of us—nanny, bus driver, journalist, teacher, even, yes, corporate executive—have an undeveloped trove of masterpieces within us? How, then, would we change the world?