“I am the mystery woman,” Vivian Maier says when asked her name by a child in one of her home movies, and she remains a mystery to us today. Little is known about the specific details of Maier’s life, despite her great photographic talent and tremendous physical presence, described (albeit with exaggeration) as masculine, seven-feet in height, and walking with a commandeering stride. Born in New York in 1926, Maier spent much of her youth in France, and then later, after working in New York City sweatshops, she moved to Chicago, where she worked as a nanny for nearly forty years. Other than this skeletal history, the details are scattered and sparse. To one acquaintance she described herself as being “sort of a spy,” and to businesses she patronized she would give permutations of her name as identification. And yet paradoxically, given this intensely private woman’s attempt to conceal the details of her personal life, the incredible body of photographic work she left behind is now receiving international recognition.
Is this the legacy that Maier would have wanted? Likely not, given the way she guarded her privacy when she was alive. This photographic evidence would have been dispersed and forever escaped our notice if not for John Maloof’s good eye and brilliant luck in purchasing a case of her photographic negatives at auction, or his tenacity in both gathering physical evidence and, like a detective, meticulously piecing together a story from the items that she collected. And so, with the release of Maloof’s film, Finding Vivian Maier, come looming questions—would Maier have wanted this? And, how self-serving is Maloof’s ambition? The former was asked of the subjects who knew Maier best (which still was not very well) and their response was unequivocally “no,” she would have loathed the attention. The answer to the latter question is more ambiguous. The film is a paean to Maier’s work, but it’s also a documentation of the director’s own quest to reconstruct her identity and retroactively position her work alongside that of photographic giants like Arbus and Avedon. Uncovering Maier’s work has become Maloof’s obsession, and for now, it’s also become his life’s work.
Maloof is on a quest to uncover an identity that explains Maier’s enigmatic practice, but in so doing, he seems a bit enigmatic himself: “You always want to know who is behind the work,” he states, as if this is the only justification he needs to publicly reveal and make sense of the traces Maier left behind. He’s made it his mission to “find” Maier, to make sure that her estate is preserved the “right” way, and he says that he has been “pushed” into this role of curator of her work. While this at first sounds believable, and Maier’s body of work is arresting, deserving of attention, it is hard to believe that Maloof has merely been “pushed”: he also seems terribly ambitious. Even though he questions what Maier would have wanted, the answers he’s given—that she would not have wanted the personally directed public attention—don’t seem to weigh heavily on him. All for art’s sake might be Maloof’s motto. But of course, there remains the looming question of what Maloof stands to gain from this: it seems like a great deal. On the one hand, Maloof’s enthusiasm is seemingly borne of good intentions. On the other, his posthumous discovery of Maier’s work, combined with her lack of descendants and close friends to vie for control of it, means he stumbled upon a treasure with no strings attached. And so, there are really two stories being told in Finding Vivian Maier: that of Maier the enigma, of reveling in her art while constructing a narrative to stand beside it; and that of Maloof’s curatorial pursuit to preserve Maier’s work, to sell her work, and to establish her relevance within the art world—and through her relevance, his own significance.
Vivian Maier walked through the world with a camera around her neck. As a nanny she took long strolls with her charges, and they accompanied her on adventures through rundown areas of town—the stockyards, abandoned lots, city streets. She falls in to the category of photographer as flâneur, as Susan Sontag identifies in On Photography: “an armed version of the solitary walker, reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” It seems Maier developed her practice on the street, too. She had no formal schooling, and yet she had developed a brilliant eye for composition and lighting, a sense of humor, and a capacity for the grotesque, as well as a flare for capturing intimate gazes on film. Her eye for the eccentric and offbeat, framed exquisitely, made for an arresting image. As a person, Maier was eccentric, opinionated, didn’t trust men, followed the news and politics, and was quite brave despite her reserve, traveling the world on her own. But as a poor woman—“too poor to die,” she claimed—working as a live-in nanny meant that shelter and amenities were built into her job, and this, along with her vast solitude, gave her freedom and autonomy to pursue her photographic work, and this work comprised her life.
She left behind her over 100,000 negatives, nearly 1,000 undeveloped rolls of film, as well as cassette recordings and short films. She also had tendencies toward hoarding, such as saving towering stacks of newspapers for articles she wanted to read and accumulating piles of insignificant receipts (then placing them all in storage). It’s as if Maier’s connection to material objects in some way compensated for her lack of intimacy with any other people besides the children she tended. The intimacy and humor in her photographs is undeniable. And yet it seems as if Maier never had any intention of showing these images publicly, or even sharing them with the families she lived with. In our hyperconnected state, with Instagram and myriad forms of social media, this is an unthinkable idea. So, we’re told that Maier sold herself short, that something was wrong with her.
Perhaps. Perhaps Maier would’ve been acknowledged as one of the greats if she had sought to show her work. Maloof gets caught up with this question of why Maier was so prolific and yet so private. And while it’s a conundrum, it’s also disconcerting to think that something was wrong, in that Maier had an extensive practice that she didn’t try to profit from. Maier’s lack of wealth and status may have made it difficult to show work and have it taken seriously. And also, given that she was an eccentric woman without connections who made work starting in the ‘50s—would she really have been embraced by the commercial art world? It seems that she didn’t lust after this recognition, and she didn’t think it an option, either. Maier acknowledges in a letter she wrote to a French photo developer that she was difficult to deal with. But there’s also the possibility that, for Maier, the work was enough.
As we look at the images—filled with soft gazes, drunks passed out on stoops, knowing glances, so many faces, some disfigured, some dazzling—it becomes apparent that photography was one of the few ways Maier truly engaged with the world. It’s almost as if she found comfort in the distance that comes with standing behind the lens. This allowed for the brief intimate exchanges she had in her pictures. She was endowed with the power of the gaze while not having to give any of herself up. In this space, even an outsider and eccentric could discover moments of intimacy.
Susan Sontag discusses the distance and voyeurism inherent to photography: “The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is a supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at subjects.” Sontag is talking about Diane Arbus’ work, but it’s just as relevant to Maier’s here. Photography provided Maier with a form of intimacy and experience gathered vicariously, through watching others. These others “are to remain exotic, hence ‘terrific.’ Her view is always from the outside.” And that’s just it: Maier was always on the outside looking in. And she always took photos—even when it seemed callous, such as when one of the children we tended was hit by a car: she turned the camera on him and kept filming. It seems to be a way she mitigated the chaos of the external world. And as an impoverished, eccentric woman Maier perhaps saw herself within the people she captured, too. She captured many images of herself: often refracted, at oblique angles, always solitary except when accompanied by a child, or as a shadow lurking over the scene.
This inability to enter the world is not unique to Maier—but she was closed off in such an extreme way, and made so much work, that it is remarkable that her incredible talent remained so well-hidden. Poet Mary Ruefle identifies this inability as inherent to the poet, too: “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets have in common is their desire to enter this world.” In this sense, Maier is a true poet, and by poet I mean artist, photographer, woman with a singular vision. Perhaps her extreme need for privacy created the very tension that drove Maier to document so much. And yet, here I am falling prey to hypotheses and opinions, attached to my own idea of Vivian Maier, reconstructing her narrative in a different light than Maloof, but still just as much a fabrication.
Maloof is a curator—and with his meticulous sense of detail, his strong inclination toward achievement and connection, and his eye for the market, he’s also extremely shrewd. But he’s something of a conquistador, too, claiming Maier’s work, in a sense, and making the recognition of her work his mission, when perhaps it’s just enough that her work is seen. Maier herself would probably recoil from her growing celebrity. Her philosophy of life is, surprisingly, rather communal, as she said on tape: “It's a wheel—you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody takes their place. There's nothing new under the sun.” The wheel of fortune spins around, Maier’s went down, and in her descent brought Maloof up with it again. There’s nothing new in that either.
“The new creativity is pointing, not making,” claims poet Kenneth Goldsmith. “Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.” And following his logic, the best artists will be the best curators. In this sense, Maier’s extensive body of work is the perfect discovery for Maloof, who now identifies as a filmmaker and photographer—Maier was a prolific artist whose life is a mystery, whose posthumously discovered work echoes that of other great photographers of her era, and whose prints can be multiplied and distributed. We can read into her what we want, and with Finding Vivian Maier’s widespread release, this seems to be just the beginning of the making of Maier’s personal mythology. But perhaps we’ve already found all we need by looking at her photographs.
Anne K. Yoder's fiction and nonfiction have
appeared in The Millions, Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She
has received fellowships from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
and the Summer Literary Seminars. She currently lives in Chicago.