Vivian Maier, famous 20th century photographer, was unknown until her death in 2009: NPR


Vivian Maier is considered one of the greatest national photographers of the 20th century. But his genius was not revealed until after his death in 2009. It was then that the contents of his storage containers, more than 140,000 photographs and negatives, caught the attention of curators and critics. Museum exhibitions and two documentary films followed. Author Ann Marks spent years researching Maier’s gifted but troubled life to write “Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story Of The Photographer Nanny”. Ann Marks is joining us now from New York.

Ann, thank you for being with us.

ANN MARKS: Gladly.

GONYEA: So Maier is best known as a street photographer. Can you tell us about some of your favorite images and what they say about her style?

MARKS: Well, actually there’s a picture of a woman in front of the New York library, and it’s very elusive and mysterious, and it fits in the frame, like she’s some sort of Venus. And then it is framed by the steps and pillars of the New York library. But what’s amazing about this photo is that Vivian took it on a bus. And he’s considered one of his best.

GONYEA: Two documentaries were released several years ago. One of them is called “Finding Vivian Maier”. The other is “The Mystery of Vivian Maier”. They told the story, but you wanted to know more, not just about his photos but about his life. What made you start to really unravel this story?

MARKS: Well, what happened was I watched the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”. And, of course, I was won over by her photographs, but it was really surprising to me that she was described in such different ways. So some people would say she’s mean. Some would say that she is nice. I kind of wanted to reconcile that. And then also, I was surprised that even with all genealogists, no one could trace their family history at all. So I felt like maybe I could. And I just started and I never stopped.

GONYEA: The area of ​​Vivian Maier’s life that we know the least was her childhood. Part of it was spent in Europe. What kind of education did Maier have?

MARKS: Well, Vivian was mainly raised by her mother. And her mother was a very troubled person. She was an illegitimate child in France. So she came to New York, married a man, Charles Maier, who was an alcoholic, gamer and could be violent. And then they had Vivian. Then the father left the family. And it was this unstable mother who raised Vivian. And from what we can tell, it was basically ignored. No one was paying attention to her. No one cared about her. That’s why she wanted to get away from her family and never look back.

GONYEA: As a young woman, Maier made her living as a nanny, working first in New York and Los Angeles and particularly in Chicago. She was even the nanny of the children of the television personality Phil Donahue in Chicago after her divorce. How did this period, overall, living with families, taking care of the children affected the way she took pictures and I guess what she took pictures of?

MARKS: It’s interesting because in New York she seemed to be a lot more focused on being a real commercial photographer. And although she was a nanny, she was engaged in the photography community. And there are many, many pictures of her trying different types of photographs and a few examples of when she sold them. Once she moved to Chicago, she became the nanny of the Gensburg family for 11 years, and it was truly the happiest time of her life. So there, as she took street photos, there were many more everyday family photos. And she didn’t get involved in the photography community at all. It was a complete reversal of her outlook on photography, and it just became more of a hobby for her.

GONYEA: There is something you write about her photographs that I found very interesting, and it sets her apart. Portraits and photographs of children tended to be very sentimental. They did not idealize children. She paid very respectful attention to the elderly in her photographs. And the images she took of workers, of working class people, kind of imbued them with a certain dignity.

MARKS: I think that’s one of the most interesting things about Vivian. Many children have told me that the photos they have of themselves are wrapped as little birthday gifts. You know, they’re cleaned up. They smile. They’re happy. And at Vivian’s, they cry. They have tantrums. And she was in the authenticity of people, not in the artifice of photographing children.

GONYEA: As you said, some people who have looked at her life and her work concluded that she wouldn’t like how it all turned out since her death. She wouldn’t like us to know now what we know about her life and her journey. What is your opinion on this?

MARKS: Well, that idea sort of took root because Vivian was a private person whereas the people who knew her in Chicago and all of the people interviewed in the movies were from Chicago. And they never saw that she wanted to be a photographer and that she very often shared her photographs in New York. See. I know a family that has a hundred vintage prints of it. And when she went to Chicago, you would be lucky if you had two. But she had a hoarding disorder that gradually got worse over time. And she was accumulating newspapers. And she also accumulated photographs. So maybe she wanted to show and share her photographs, but she couldn’t because she was accumulating them. And she was very fatalistic that she thought that once you’re dead, you know, it’s over, it’s up to others to decide. And we know she thought her work was good, so it wasn’t that she was embarrassed to show it. You could really argue that she would have been okay with that. And actually, one of the most interesting things – she’s obsessed with fame. And who can say that she wouldn’t have wanted to be a celebrity herself after the fact when she could have?

GONYEA: Ann Marks is the author of “Vivian Maier Developed”. Thank you very much for being with us today.

BRANDS: Thank you.


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