I never met Vivian Maier and doubt whether we’d have gotten along if I had. Taciturn, solitary people obsessed with their own struggles don’t often make friends. Yet we walked the same streets, went the same places. We probably crossed paths more than once, but it was as strangers—the way so many do in the city—never meant to know one another as anything but passersby. Now, many, many strangers know Maier, or think they do. She probably wouldn’t like the way we’ve picked over every bit of her life, but she’s not around to admonish us or make us stop.
For those unfamiliar with the Vivian Maier story, Pamela Bannos provides a pithy synopsis at the beginning of her authoritative new biography, Vivian Maier, A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife:
Her storage lockers went into arrears.
A young man named John Maloof bought a box of her negatives.
He Googled her name and found that she had died a few days earlier.
He discovered the woman known today as the mysterious nanny street photographer.
Bannos spends the rest of her book meticulously separating the facts of Maier’s life from the fairytales woven in her wake, in order, primarily, to raise the sale prices of her photographs.
The Gene Siskel Film Center has long been a magnet for movie-mad weirdos. Many of the regulars could easily be mistaken for street people. They show up with bags of newspapers, half-eaten supermarket food, and more clothes than they could ever need for a night at the movies. In Bannos’s book, Jim Dempsey, who worked at the Siskel from the early 90s until just a few years ago, recalls having many conversations with Maier. She always had a camera around her neck but they never talked about photography, Dempsey assumed it was just part of her wardrobe, had no idea she’d taken tens of thousands of pictures. She loved the movies and had definitive opinions about them. Eccentric cinematheque haunters are a recognizable type familiar to anyone who’s ever attended an art or foreign film screening. They’re often unkempt and obviously get their emotional needs met vicariously by the flickering figures of the silver screen. I’ve worried that I was one of them ever since I was a teenager working at an art house in Brookline, Massachusetts in the late 80s.
Living through books, movies, or music is a very real concern for people with poor social skills. Fictional characters can become real friends when one has trouble reaching out or being reached. Bannos is able to track down some evidence of at least fleeting friendships in Maier’s life but it is obvious that the woman spent much of her life keeping her own counsel, while voraciously reading, watching, and listening to all the art, news, and literature she could get her hands on.
She used photography to connect as well. Having a camera between herself and others was not a barrier but a way to bridge the gap and communicate with people in ways she wasn’t able to without it. In this way she was like every artist from the beginning of time. Each has a need to talk to the world but must find indirect, sometimes obtuse or obscure ways to do so.
I didn’t get involved with the Vivian Maier story until 2013 or 2014. By then John Maloof, Jeffrey Goldstein, and Ron Slattery—the three main collectors of her archive—had raised her profile through exhibitions, countless news articles, a book or two, and a couple documentaries. I’d seen the show at Jim Dempsey’s gallery, culled from Slattery’s collection of Maier prints, and left unimpressed. Photography has never been a thing I was much interested in. What hooked me wasn’t the nanny-photographer story either. It was the question of what happens to an artist’s work after they’re gone that got me. Maloof and Goldstein were paying master printers to make fancy new prints which Maier would never have splurged for in her lifetime. They weren’t bothering to crop these images the way she had either. Were these even Vivian Maier photographs any more?
Maloof’s movie, Finding Vivian Maier, was about to come out and that sealed the deal for me. I decided to dig into her story if for no other reason than to find out what was fact and what was fiction meant to drive up Maier’s market value by peddling myths and fairytales. Slattery was very helpful in connecting me with both Bannos and Goldstein, whereas Maloof never answered a single one of my many emails. I read everything I could find online about Maier, asked every photographer I knew for their takes, and watched Maloof’s movie, as well as Jill Nicholl’s far more even-handed The Vivian Maier Mystery. The result was “The Vivian Mire”, first published in Spolia in 2014, then in an updated version in Vol. 1 Brooklyn in 2015.
I came away from that experience with grave misgivings about Maloof and Goldstein’s enterprises. For all their insistence that they were preserving Maier’s legacy, it all smelled too much like a way to make money and get famous off someone else’s life work. In the intervening years, as it became clear there was more treasure to be mined, many lawyers got involved, and Maloof and Goldstein’s posthumous print business has been slowed, if not entirely halted. Goldstein sold off his collection to a Canadian gallerist, who then sold it to some shadowy Swiss concern, thereby making it much more difficult for Cook County, Illinois—currently in charge of Maier’s estate—to regulate what is done with that work. Maloof has entered into some sort of agreement with the state, the terms of which have not been made public. A recent donation of some 500 vintage prints from his stash to the University of Chicago, is likely one aspect of legitimizing his continuing involvement in the Maier industry.
I finally met Maloof a couple months ago. He has opened a nonprofit gallery called Miishkooki in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I went there to review an exhibition of painted portraits by artist/musician Tim Kerr. Maier’s portrait was among those on display. I asked Maloof how he funded this place and he didn’t mention Maier, but there’s no way her photographs don’t contribute to keeping his doors open.
I read Bannos’s book with great interest and came away in awe of her dogged thoroughness. It will likely be the last authoritative word on Vivian Maier for anyone interested in her story for anything but financial gain. I wrote a very positive review of it for the Chicago alt-paper New City and got a pissy email from Goldstein within a day of publication. He urged me to read an ebook by Ann Marks, which has been rushed to publication seemingly to refute or undermine Bannos’s years of work. I don’t think I’ll bother.
Up until the Chicago Book Expo held at Columbia College on October 1st, Pamela Bannos and I had never met in person. She confided via email a few days before that she feared reprisals from Maloof and Goldstein. Neither showed up to cause her any grief and I was able to congratulate her on her book in person, which felt like a fitting ending to my involvement with Maier.
And yet, here I am a month later, still mulling over her story. So what keeps drawing me back to her? It’s not her pictures, which a lot of people love but I find mostly middling, often unremarkable; neither is it the collectors who brought her to posthumous prominence, though I’m especially thankful to Slattery for sharing his knowledge and introducing me to Bannos. What keeps resonating is the idea of an artist living exclusively for her art, then due either to dementia, mental illness, or lack of interest, leaving her legacy to be shaped and controlled by others.
Bannos has done all she can to give Maier a voice, but in the absence of personal writings or a will, that voice will never truly be heard except through the medium of photography. Vivian Maier remains a tabula rasa for us to interpret for our own purposes. Back in 2014 while I toured his Maier print factory, Goldstein bragged to me about Ralph Fiennes visiting a week or two before. So there’s a chance we’ll have Hollywood’s Maier in addition to Maloof’s, Bannos’s, Goldstein’s, Slattery’s, or even mine before it’s all said and done.
The other day I went to the Siskel Film Center to see a documentary on another, even more famous Chicago eccentric named Henry Darger. I recognized a few of the regulars, though the screening was sparsely attended. A half hour into the movie I heard snores a few rows back and looked back to see an older man, mouth agape, head tilted back, sawing some serious logs. I’ll wager this man falls asleep in this theater and others around town several times a week and that nobody knows much about him except for this irritating habit of his. But he may have constructed a secret world like Maier, Darger, and others have, which we may not discover until he passes, if ever. Spending time thinking about Vivian Maier opens one’s mind to the possibility that we’re surrounded by strangers who inhabit realities we might want to discover.
All any of us can hope for is to be remembered well for what we did while we were alive—whether that life was lived like an open book or like an abandoned storage locker full of secrets as Vivian Maier did.