TThe mystique of Vivian Maier, the reclusive Chicago photographer / nanny who found posthumous fame, shows no signs of losing her grip on the cultural imagination (see: Vivian Maier: in color at the Chicago History Museum until May 2023).
But a new biography of first-time author Ann Marks – who became fascinated with Maier after seeing the 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary Find Vivian Maier, produced by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel and actor Jeff Garlin – suggests that much of what we think we know about Maier may be wrong. In Vivian Maier developed: The untold story of the nanny photographer (Atria Books, December 7), Marks delved into extensive genealogical research, analyzing 140,000 extant Maier images and other personal documents to provide a portrait of a woman who “overcame enormous family obstacles. to lead a full and satisfying life on it. own terms.
We caught up with Marks, a retired Dow Jones Marketing Director and the the Wall Street newspaper, by phone to talk about some of the ideas she discovered. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there a particular aspect of Maier’s life or work that initially piqued your curiosity?
After watching the documentary, there were two things I couldn’t help but think about. One was all the different adjectives everyone used to describe Vivian. In the book, I sort of start with that because they’re so opposite. Some people thought she was nice; some people thought she was mean. Some thought it was old-fashioned; certain that she was a feminist. They were just completely contrasting descriptions. And I thought: how could I make sense of this? Why do people have different perceptions? And then the second thing was, I just couldn’t believe back then, with all the digital records, that all these genealogists were using their skills and their time, and John and Jeff were using their money to find out all they could. on Vivian, and they turned out a bit empty. I thought there was something so strange about it, and I felt I had to fix this, because everyone has families, and I needed to know where they were.
How long did it take you to find out that all of these dichotomies really stemmed from a deep and tangled family history?
I spent about five years on research, then two years on being published. Everywhere I went I found some really interesting things, and then I was able to sort of unravel the whole family history and the history of France. [Many believed Maier was born in France, but in fact she was born in New York.] I was able to find people in New York who knew Vivian, which was a big part of her story because she was like a different person there. And that’s when she started photography. In fact, I ended up finding out that his whole attitude to photography, his demeanor, was completely different in New York. And so that really opened up new knowledge about her for sure.
What specific things made you realize that the popular narrative around Maier – including the idea that she never wanted to exhibit her work – wasn’t necessarily the right one, or at least the full one?
I discovered a few key things quite early on. There was a reason she was a secret about her life. It wasn’t because she was an eccentric eccentric. She had a very bad family life, and there was no benefit to her in telling those upscale Highland Park families [where Maier worked as a nanny] that his father was an alcoholic and that he was violent and that his brother was in prison and in institutions and that his mother was narcissistic. Its whole story was painful enough, but you would never want to expose it to other people, especially if you were watching their children. So I found his behavior to be actually rational, when a lot of people thought it was very strange.
Talking to people in New York really changed everything, as it became very obvious to me that she was trying to be a professional photographer. She was very open with her photographs. There is a family in New York who owns hundreds of vintage photographs of Vivian. In Chicago, she would give people a maximum of two. She was therefore much more generous and open with her photography in New York. The aftermath of her traumatic childhood caught up with her, and it really changed her ability to share her photographs. You could very well say that she had wanted to be a photographer and show her work and that she was proud of her work and would have been great with what is happening now.
What has been the most profound discovery of all the research you have done that you perhaps didn’t expect to learn?
There were a number of highlights, but the most important was when I listened to his recordings. Because I had a perception of Vivian solely based on how people described her – even with the contrasting adjectives, you get the impression that there is a kind of seriousness, of detachment. You just got a glimpse of what it was. Well when you listen to the tapes she is nothing like what you think she is. And I realized that everyone’s perception was based on their physical presence, which might be off-putting, but she was actually warm, patient, and kind and was nothing like what we came to think of. ‘she. So I just looked at her in a whole new light, and that’s when I really wanted to understand why she appeared the way she did, why she presented herself the way she did, who was the real one. Vivian, and how that was expressed, then, through his photography.