Friday, February 3

Vivian Maier: the traumatic biography of the world’s most secret photographer


15 years ago, in 2007, the contents of a storage room in Chicago in which a babysitter kept, in stacked cardboard boxes, several printed photos and thousands and thousands of reels with undeveloped images. One of the collectors who acquired part of that lot, for less than 400 euros, was John Maloof, a young man who had been forced to leave his art studies due to financial problems and who immediately appreciated the enormous artistic value of that archive.

In those photos (some 143,000 in total) there were authenticity in spades and a lot of humanity, there was denunciation of inequalities, injustices and the racial division in the United States, there were people on the street, there were beggars and workersThere were rich and poor, there were images of the economic boom, there were magnificent views of New York and Chicago, there were several celebrities, there were children… And there were also several self-portraits of a mysterious tall woman, dressed in a tailored suit and hat, large men’s shoes and a photo camera hanging from his neck. But everything was unknown about that woman, nothing was known about the author of that impressive repertoire of images.

The photos were so powerful that they soon became popular, also spurred on by the impenetrable secret that surrounded its author. Only in 2009, when a woman named Vivian Maier died at age 89, did one of the families she had worked for as a babysitter discover her identity.

But numerous enigmas continued to surround her. Why hadn’t someone with her immense talent devoted herself exclusively to photography and yet worked as a babysitter? Why had she left almost all of her reels stored in a storage room, without bothering to even reveal the vast majority of them? Who really was Vivian Maier?

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Ann Marks, a retired director of several major companies and a passion for genealogy and mysteries, decided to investigate. And, with enormous perseverance, he managed to access personal documents and first-hand sources that allow us to reconstruct the terrible family ties and the lonely life of that extraordinary woman who was Vivian Maier. The result is Reveal Vivian Maieran impressive biography of more than 400 pages of the photographic nanny published by Paids, which includes more than 400 photos (many of them unpublished) and in which, finally, her life and her work merge into a single story.

“Mystery solved”, in the words of Marks herself.

The portrait of Vivian Maier that emerges from the pages of the book is that of a complex and impenetrable woman, a survivor who, although she grew up in a dysfunctional family marked by violence, managed to escape from it and find her own way. A born artist who, as her years went by, perfected her technique and if she always kept her photographs hidden, it was, to a great extent, for the traumas that his very complicated childhood left him.

Maier’s fate was marked by his grandfather, the Frenchman Nicolas Baille, who impregnated his grandmother, Eugnie Jaussaud, when she was 16 years old. He flatly refused to marry her. From that relationship of hers, Marie, Vivian’s mother, was born, who throughout her life dragged the stigma of being an illegitimate daughtera terrible scourge in those times.

When her daughter was four years old, Eugnie Jaussaud escaped the scandal of being a single mother and headed for the United States, where she worked as a cook for several wealthy families on the East Coast. Marie herself stayed in France until 1914 when she, aged 17, joined her mother in New York. They were both by then two strangers.

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A few years later, in 1919, Marie married Charles Maier in New York. And although the marriage was a disaster From the beginning, their first child, Carl, was born within a year, and in 1926, Vivian.

Vivian’s father was an alcoholic, a gambler, and violent. Her mother, a deeply narcissistic woman unable to care for her children or hold a job. The couple separated definitively in 1927. Carl then entered an orphanage, then ended up in a reform school and later in jail; he had problems with alcohol and other drugs and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Vivian stayed with her mother, who often left her alone or in shelters and from 1939 she began to show signs of serious mental problems.

When his grandmother died and left him an inheritance some land in France, Vivian moved briefly to that country to manage the sale of those lands. There began her passion for photography, armed with a camera that had belonged to his mother. Upon her return to New York, she began working as a babysitter, a profession that she would practice throughout her life, without ever stopping taking photos.

Interviews with 30 people who knew her conducted by Ann Marks show that Vivian Maier was an extremely private and private woman, rarely showing her photographs to others and totally rejected physical contact. The biographer considers that this is due to the terrible traumas she suffered in her childhood, to which is added the suspicion that she may have suffered sexual abuse. That would explain her fear of men, whom she considered a potential threat.

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All this string of traumas, to which is added the family history of mental illnesses, caused the nanny-photographer to develop a severe hoarding disorder. He obsessively bought and stored large amounts of books, magazines, brochures and especially newspapers. Probably, Marks speculates, such hoarding behavior gave him a sense of controlThose possessions brought her comfort. But, as the years went by, her hoarding paranoia increased and caused her to be fired from many jobs.

She was a convinced defender of equality between the sexes, actively supported the civil rights movement and condemned segregationism. Until the end of her days, she remained vital and active, taking photos almost daily, and it seems that he was relatively happy. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 83, never suspecting the fame that he would achieve posthumously.

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