Camera Obscura

Vivian Maier: A Photographer?s Life and Afterlife BY Pamela Bannos. University Of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 352 pages. $35.

The cover of Vivian Maier: A Photographer?s Life and Afterlife

Vivian Maier was an ambitious and prolific photographer who conducted her work in the open but kept its results almost entirely to herself. No one has any idea why that is. We know about her work only by chance, and through cultural and economic circumstances specific to the early twenty-first century. Had her end come even a decade earlier, it is quite likely that her photographs would have been destroyed and her name relegated to a mere census entry and a dim memory in very few minds. Instead she has been propelled to posthumous fame, and fortune by proxy. She has attained that rarefied position by virtue of her talent, to be sure, but also because of the romance of serendipity as well as the singular opportunities afforded by the internet to certain kinds of beaverish promoters. Thus her story, as patiently and lucidly detailed by Pamela Bannos in her nearly forensic biography—which unties many knots and brings order to what was previously a chaotic welter of information and misinformation—moves along two timelines at once, before and after death, both of them labyrinthine and marked by passages of seemingly permanent obscurity.

We know that Maier was born in New York City in 1926 to French and Austrian immigrants, that she moved to France with her mother at the age of six and moved back in 1938, that she had little formal education, perhaps worked in a sweatshop after her return, and was employed in a doll factory by the time she was seventeen, by which time she may also have permanently lost contact with her immediate family. We know that she returned to France for a year when she was twenty-four, on that trip making her first photographs that we know of—at least three thousand of them. We know that she lived in New York from 1951 to 1955, earning her living by attending to small children as a babysitter or nanny, and that during that time she acquired a Rolleiflex and eventually a flash attachment for it, and experimented with color photography. We know that, alone or with a family, she visited Quebec City in 1955, and then took trains across Canada and down to Los Angeles, where she evidently intended to stay, although within a few months she had moved to San Francisco, where she found employment as a nanny. But that interval, too, was brief; in early 1956 she moved to Chicago, where she was to remain for the rest of her life. We know that she made a brief trip back to New York that September, the following year planned an extensive journey to South America that she never undertook, traveled through subarctic Canada in 1958, and then took a trip around the world in 1959, revisiting the Champsaur valley of her French origins for the last time. We are reasonably sure that she did not leave Chicago of her own volition after 1965.

We know that she had twenty-two separate addresses in and around Chicago, the first for sixteen years, the second for seven, and the last for ten, the others mostly sheltering her for a year or less. We know that she made a great many photographs—at least one hundred thousand of them, and probably more—with a Rolleiflex until the mid-1970s or maybe later and perhaps with a Leica for a decade or more afterward. We are reasonably sure that she never had an intimate relationship—when mistaken for the grandmother of one of her charges, for example, she angrily riposted that she was “a virtuous woman.” We know that she primarily worked as a nanny or attendant, that she was tall and big-boned, wore “mannish” coats and shoes, affected an accent that did not exactly accord with her biography, lied about her family background and early years, and hoarded newspapers, as well as her photographs and books (which she shelved spine-in), to such an extent that the structural stability of her employers’ houses was sometimes endangered. We know that in the early ’90s she rented five storage lockers to house her possessions, and left them there until she stopped paying the rent in 2007. We know that their contents were purchased by an auctioneer for $260 and sold by him to an assortment of speculators for around $20,000.

Although we know that she possessed an extensive library of books on photography and monographs on photographers, we don’t know exactly when she decided to become a photographer, whether she ever had professional instruction in the medium, or what use, if any, she intended for her very large body of work. Although most of her employers were aware that she took pictures, since her Rolleiflex hung around her neck on nearly every trip out of the house, we don’t know why none ever saw more than a handful of shots, mostly pictures of their children or themselves. We don’t know why she eventually stopped printing or even developing her rolls, and cannot account for the disparity between the glory of the full frames she exposed and the relatively few prints she made from them, many of which, in the words of the photo historian Marvin Heiferman, are “often indifferently printed and cropped to extract the more obvious details from bigger and more complex pictures.” Not to mention that there is no overlap between the images for which she has become known posthumously and the ones she herself chose to print. We don’t know why she was so secretive, why she often used aliases when dealing with shopkeepers, or why she failed to cash thousands of dollars’ worth of income-tax refund checks.

We know that an interval of some eighteen months passed between the dispersal of her possessions and her death. She was still alive when she started to become well known as a result of discussions on street-photography forums on the internet, although it seems that no one was aware of this. On November 25, 2008, Maier fell and hit her head on the sidewalk and was subsequently hospitalized; she died the following April 21 without having regained lucidity. John Maloof, a real-estate agent who was the first to evangelize for her and market her aggressively, and who ended up with the bulk of her output, claimed that he had finally googled her name and found her obituary the day after her death. In any case, because of the way her estate was handled, less in the initial auctions than in the profuse eBay sales by Maloof and others in the months following those auctions, we have no idea what may have happened to entire slices of her oeuvre. Prints and negatives were sometimes purchased by people who had no name to attach to their authorship, and despite Maier’s posthumous fame (five books of her photos have been published to date), they may still not know. If she took pictures before her 1950 trip to France, for example, they may be sitting unidentified in some collector’s boxes somewhere in the world, and may never be found.

Maier was a quick-witted street photographer with a vast range of curiosity and an ability to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances in the field. She was audacious, braving high perches and dense crowds and defying official barriers and behavioral conventions in pursuit of shots. Her baked-in reclusiveness may have assisted her in assuming the willed invisibility that is the street photographer’s secret weapon. She was clearly aware of developments in the art as they happened, so that her early pictures suggest the possible influence of such photographers as Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Sid Grossman, and Leon Levinstein, and later on of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, William Klein, and Garry Winogrand. Unlike those photographers, however, she never benefited from the presence of a community of peers trading tips and insights and spurring one another on to greater goals and unexpected turns. Thus, even as she honed her magisterial gifts, she remained an eternal student, on the sidelines of her medium. Her faltering will to print or even develop her images also likely resulted from a lack of community, audience, dialogue, greater purpose. As she aged, her once-extensive repertoire of approaches narrowed to a series of stock maneuvers. A large percentage of her later pictures were of newspapers—stacked, spread, crumpled, tossed.

She also made hundreds of short films, which she never edited, and some audiotapes, including one in which she grills random pedestrians about their views on Nixon and the Watergate hearings. For many years she pursued her career as if she were actually covering events for the press, shooting speeches, parades, street arrests, movie premieres, demonstrations, and the aftermaths of riots and natural disasters. You sense in her work a burning desire to engage with the world. And yet that desire was stymied by her defenses, some of which, at least in her later years, took on paranoid overtones. She once told an employer that if she had not kept her images secret, “people would have stolen or misused them”; she told a bookstore owner that she thought people were spying on her with binoculars. She may have been a high-functioning paranoid personality, which would account for her secretiveness. Or she may have slid into it later in life, and at first kept her work generally unseen because she was uncertain of its merits, or had been rejected once and never got over it, or feared the social barriers between her as an uneducated woman employed in domestic service and the Brahmins who judged the art of photography, or was so involved in the process of taking pictures that she couldn’t take time out to think of trying to circulate them.

Many photographs turn up on eBay by makers who are either anonymous or so unknown they might as well be. Maier differs sharply from the norm by virtue of her vast output, and because of the patterns that can be observed thanks to that vastness. She did not merely take good and consistently interesting pictures—she had identifiable themes and preoccupations, like any photographer worthy of a monograph. She often photographed men sleeping in the open, older women, women wearing hats, the legs and ankles of obese women, men and women seen from behind, people with physical deformities, people taking pictures, shoes of all sorts in every kind of circumstance—and of course she consistently made self-portraits, pictures of her reflection or her shadow, finding ever more inventive approaches. She was parsimonious with her film, usually taking only one frame per subject, and the contact sheets that have been made public show a high rate of hits per roll. Quite a lot of her pictures possess the terse, epigrammatic, irreducible quality of the best street photographs. She developed an idiosyncratic style, in tune with her times and yet hewing to no particular school, with an eye that intrudes while retaining a psychic distance, reaching its fullest expression in those deflected self-portraits. But we have only a limited overview of her career, not so much because her output was so massive as because of the many prickly questions of ownership that obscure our sight.

At the head of Bannos’s first chapter is a diagram showing the dispersal of Maier’s estate. At the initial auctions in 2007 the major buyers were Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow, in addition to multiple unnamed others. Slattery and Prow later sold some of their acquisitions to Maloof and some to Jeffrey Goldstein (and he, in turn, sold some to a Canadian buyer, who then sold to a Swiss). Before he realized what he possessed, Maloof sold negatives as well as ink-jet prints to many unknown eBay customers. He ended up with the lion’s share of the undeveloped film, which he processed himself; he made prints of his selections, made one of the two films about her, was responsible for three of the five books collecting her work, and runs the single remaining website devoted to her. He has a good eye, to judge by his selections, but then again no one else has seen the rest of his archive—anywhere from forty thousand to over one hundred thousand images. He has not been open about his dealings and holdings, refusing to cooperate with other filmmakers, scholars, and researchers, including Bannos.

The Maier industry had already been percolating for months before someone on a Web forum raised the question of legality—of who owned her work, and who was authorized to reproduce it. Maloof initially held to a finders-keepers defense, but eventually flew to France and cut a thin deal with a nebulous cousin, thereafter proclaiming that he owned the copyright. Besides not accounting for the significant portions of Maier’s oeuvre still owned by Slattery (who is the source for most of the reproductions in Bannos’s book, which usefully enlarge the perspective), Maloof also failed to fully investigate Maier’s bloodline. In 2014, an attorney named David Deal—a former freelance photographer who had obtained his law degree partly as a consequence of seeing his work appropriated and misused on the internet—filed papers on behalf of another potential Maier heir, whose father had been the brother of one of her grandfathers. The probate court did not accept this claim outright either, but instead ceded control of the estate to the Cook County public administrator pending a full investigation.

In the cloud of unknowns surrounding the case, perhaps the thorniest factor is that of Maier’s only sibling, Karl, who died in 1977 after a lifetime spent in and out of psychiatric institutions. No one knows whether he ever fathered a child. In the absence of firm proof one way or the other, the court could conceivably maintain control of Maier’s estate until it enters the public domain in 2079. In the meantime, the court ordered Maloof and Goldstein to make copies of all documentation pertaining to the matter: every photograph and every ancillary development in the Maier industry. “In other words,” writes Bannos, “the estate was requesting that John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein provide copies of images from their collections so the public administrator could sue them for copyright infringement.” The reaction, at least among certain photo-world bloggers, followed the topsy-turvy logic of current American populism: that David Deal and by extension the state were “stealing” Maier’s work from the people, rather than the other way around.

Maloof and to a lesser extent Goldstein threw themselves into the project of creating Maier’s public profile—Maloof’s life changed radically as a result—but they were not exactly disinterested parties. The fact that Maier was still alive when the project began gives the case a certain ghoulish quality, for all that the timing was accidental and at least at first unknown to everyone involved. That she was a woman, and one who in many ways lived on the margins of society, adds further wrinkles to the case. That Maier had not made any arrangements for the disposal of her estate, that she did not edit her work to any serious extent, that she did not seem to value her images in quite the same way that most subsequent viewers have—all these raise ethical issues of various sizes. But who would benefit if only the images she printed herself were allowed to circulate? Are artists always the best judges of their own work? Should the artist’s intent persist after death, especially when that intent is uncertain? Do Maier’s proclivities with regard to printing and developing accurately reflect her judgment of her work, given that she seems to have valued the act of picture-taking above the later stages of the process? Besides leaving the world an impressive body of often startling images, Vivian Maier has endowed the house of photography with a particularly vivid, restless, stalking ghost.

Lucy Sante is the author, most recently, of The Other Paris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).