The Life and Afterlife of Vivian Maier


Arts & Culture

Vivian Maier, 1958. (Image from the Ron Slattery negative collection.)

The following is an excerpt from Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife, which was published last month.

There are many ways to get the wrong picture about Vivian Maier. Call her a nanny, as if that was her identity, instead of a photographer. Call her just a Chicagoan or just a Frenchwoman, instead of a born Manhattanite and self- styled European. Call her Vivian, as if you know her well. Call her a mystery or an enigma, as if no one ever knew her, or ever could.

To get the right picture, look at her squarely, as she would look at you: on her own terms, from her own evidence of who she was and what she did. Only then can we begin to see Vivian Maier, woman and photographer, and begin to enter her world. 

The story of the Vivian Maier phenomenon has been told so many times that it can now be reduced to a few short phrases:

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.

But rarely is a story as simple as the filtered- down version that results from multiple retellings. Each link in the chain of the Vivian Maier story branches to reveal a much more complex and nuanced saga. Our current lack of understanding of this woman and her passion for photography stems from oversimplifications of her emergence and packaged versions of the story.

Ethical issues have largely been glossed over in favor of a heroic narrative that benefits the people who have been selling her work. We are told that they have saved Vivian Maier from oblivion and have allowed us to own pieces of her legacy. Many people believe that Maier would be pleased with the sharing of her work in this way; yet she plainly chose to not share it while she was alive. Some feel that Maier would have destroyed her work if she didn’t want it to be found; one writer has even suggested that she had saved it for us.

Vivian Maier. (Image from the Ron Slattery negative collection. Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier © 2017 The Estate of Vivian Maier. All rights reserved.)

I have looked carefully at tens of thousands of Vivian Maier’s images. I have walked in her footsteps. I have delved the archives in search of everything we might know about Vivian Maier and her work. As I entered the world of her photographs, a different person emerged for me than the one who was shaped for the public imagination. I also learned about Maier’s development as a photographer and her life as an independent woman. She cultivated an air of mystery, but she no longer seems like a “mystery woman” to me.

This book is a counterpoint, a counternarrative, and a corrective to the public depiction of Vivian Maier and her work that emerged through five photo books that were published between 2011 and 2014, drawing on two separate collections of Maier’s photography, one belonging to John Maloof and the other to Jeffrey Goldstein. Each book was larger than the last. Hundreds of her pictures also appeared in documentaries about her. Altogether, the books and movies reproduced more than a thousand images— possibly illegally. In addition, Vivian Maier’s photography has spread across every social network site and countless individual blogs.

In the time since her work first emerged into the public eye, Vivian Maier became big business: Jeffrey Goldstein, who amassed his collection for $100,000, sold $500,000 worth of her work in one year, and John Maloof’s film, Finding Vivian Maier, has grossed more than $3.5 million. A third collector, Ron Slattery, sued a gallery for $2 million on account of damage to some Maier photographs. Some of Vivian Maier’s vintage prints are priced upwards of $12,000 apiece. There have been posters, brochures, postcards, and movie DVDs— not to mention the fortune to be made in licensing fees.

Stuyvesant Town apartment complex, New York, 1954. (Photograph from the Ron Slattery collection. Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier © 2017 The Estate of Vivian Maier. All rights reserved.)

In my research, I found repeated themes that permeate both Vivian Maier’s work and the story of its discovery and propagation. High and low culture intermingle, with profound economic results; Maier’s work and her life are defined over and over again by presumptions about and representations of her as a woman; and both in life and work, no one can quite agree on her story, her character, and her value. Even in France, where she spent key parts of her childhood and young adulthood, opposing associations have claimed Maier’s legacy. Two men from opposite sides of Maier’s mother’s family have claimed to be her heir— with profound implications for those who claimed the right to reproduce and profit from her photographs.

Vivian Maier’s abundant legacy (more than four tons of stored boxes) was scattered at auction. As a result of the way her photographic work was dispersed and resold, dozens of people now own her possessions and pieces of her work. Since I began studying her fractured archive, I have found and been contacted by individuals who were at the auctions of her possessions and others who subsequently bought her belongings on eBay.

While the rest of the world may be hearing of her story for the first time, in Chicago the story has become familiar. Chicago is where “Viral Vivian” emerged, where the major players in her story reside, and where the press has incessantly reported on the triumphs of her works’ exposure, and some locals are now “Vivian Maiered- out.” In the summer of 2014, prints from Jeffrey Goldstein’s collection were exhibited simultaneously in four separate Chicago- area venues. The abundance of photographs threatened to water down Maier’s oeuvre, doing her no favor in its presentation. A local newspaper headlined an article “Vivian Maier: Cottage Industry.” A local writer penned his version of the saga and called it “The Vivian Mire.”

The scuffles around ownership of Vivian Maier’s legacy have diminished her presence, relegating her to the background in her own photographs. In many ways, Vivian Maier’s world was established before she was born: she perpetuated the legacy of her mother and grandmother, who were live- in servants, and her mother’s illegitimate birth established the first in a line of family secrets. Maier entered the world of photography, which like her took shape in both France and New York and, like her, has no simple lineage. Vivian Maier’s multiple shooting strategies remained constant. Her earliest known photographs reveal a confident and informed photographer— not a “street photographer” or a “suburban nanny photographer.” Maier and her photography were all of that and much more.

Vivian Maier’s story is a more complex story than a few short phrases can describe. We need to thoroughly understand both it and her if we are to accurately honor her life and legacy.



Reprinted with permission from Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife. © 2017 by Pamela Bannos. Published by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. 

Pamela Bannos is professor of photography in Northwestern University’s department of art theory and practice.