Saturday, March 19, 2022

Vivian Maier Developed by Ann Marks

I recently got from the library, and then read, this recent and exciting new biography of Vivian Maier that has everyone in a tizzy, I guess. There were certainly a bunch of people who snapped it up before me, so I had to place a hold and wait in a queue for a month or two. There still appears to be quite a queue, I suppose I should return this copy in a timely fashion.

Long story short, this isn't a good book. It is the result of, apparently, a monumental volume of research, and it is not pure hagiography. Nevertheless, it is a book with many problems in detail and in whole.

The book is not written in an anodyne New Yorker voice, for which I am extremely grateful. Instead it is written in a mildly amateurish, breathless, voice, for which I am somewhat less grateful. At the same time, the book actually has a discernible thesis, and makes an argument in support of same, which in this era is wildly improbably and greatly appreciated. The argument is shit, but let us not pass lightly over the fact that the argument actually exists in the first place.

The book's goal only becomes apparent after a while, although it's fairly predictable. The aim is to present Maier as, in the first place, a Very Good Photographer, and in the second place someone who "would have" in some vague sense sought some form of Success as a photographer, except that in the third place she was Prevented By Forces from seeking same, and therefore from obtaining same (which would surely have happened if only... because she's so very...) The argument presented in these pages is not complete garbage, some sections of it are even fairly well made. The argument as a whole, it must be noted, simply doesn't stand up.

This thesis is, however, the standard position adopted by superfans, and even ordinary fans, who love Maier because... I don't even know why. The story is very appealing, in some sense. We all see ourselves as misunderstood and unappreciated oddballs, after all.

In fairness to the author, Marks, she does try to wrap things up with a fairly limp summary of the argument, which summary suggests strongly that she sees the problems with it and has no real counter except a strong will that it be the way she wants it to be.

Let us jump in.

We open with a handful of chapters detailing previous generations and the movements of multiple immigrant families, the details of infidelity, out of wedlock birth, multiple marriages, and so on. As we wade through this material, the point is unclear, but Marks will bring this material back in the last third or so of the book, to make an argument about which more anon.

This early material presents the families as oddball, disturbing, dysfunctional. To my eye these families are in fact pretty typical; I've heard exactly these kinds of stories multiple times. When European families divided up with some members staying behind and others heading to America, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, things happened. Kids got dumped with relatives. Men married new wives while the old one was still in Europe. Kids got dumped in orphanages for intervals, and then lived with a family friend for a year, and so on. This sort of thing while in some sense grotesque was not, I think, strange.

Many of the details don't actually matter to the book's argument, though.

In parallel with these notions, I observed as I read that Marks does two things at once:

First, she steers a confident course through the story. So and so did this, so and so did that, and then this other thing happened.

At the same time, she makes sure we know what a maze of contradictions are the documents she is working with. At least part of what is going on here is that Marks wants us to appreciate the Vast Effort she put in. Well, ok. Every name seems to be spelled differently on every document, dates move around, etc. Marks always has what appear to be entirely invented theories about why. Vivian Maier's brother Carl was, we are told confidently, baptized twice, at two different churches, under two different names. One cannot help but wonder if in fact we're looking at two little boys, with some overlap of names. There are an awful lot of Charles/Carls around, and even more Maria/Maries.

Notable also in this section is that Marks does a bad job with names. There are lots and lots of names in play, and many of them don't seem to be even relevant. Who cares which family it was that grandmother Eugenie was working for when Carl was born? Or really, at any time? These are details that Marks was able to unearth, so by God she's shoving them in there. In any case, it is virtually impossible to keep track of who is who, and since it doesn't seem to matter, I simply didn't bother. I assume, with a modicum of charity, that Marks didn't screw it up.

The summary of this section is, essentially, that grandmother Eugenie was a saint, and that parents Marie and Carl were awful, neglectful, and probably crazy. Brother Carl was also crazy. We will need to hold on to these critical, uh, "facts" until much later when they will be rolled out in service of the larger argument.

At this point, for about the next 10 chapters (all chapters are quite short) we cover Vivian Maier's life as a photographer and nanny. This is fairly well trodden ground, and here Marks is simply filling in details. She fills in a lot of details, and while it's not clear what point there actually is to this, there is at the very least a lot of effort expended.

I do genuinely believe in massing up detail, irrelevant or not, so I cannot grudge Marks the fruits of her labor here. The shape of the story is well known, but we know a lot more of names, addresses, dates, and so on. New York, Chicago, a trip around the world, eventually a lot of hoarding, and so on.

Throughout here Marks does a thoroughly unconvincing job of arguing that Maier experimented with becoming a professional photographer. Her evidence is apparently a couple of letters discussing the idea of starting a postcard business, and the fact that she sold a very very small number of individual prints to unknown parties. Beyond that there is photographic evidence that Maier was hanging around near professional photographers, and did a small amount of experimentation with "advertising styled" photos.

Sprinkled into later material, we note a couple times even less convincing arguments that Maier was "toying with" the idea of "restarting" her career. These remarks are distinctly odd given that Maier never started a career in the first place, and the evidence for even a serious interest in starting one is extremely thin. The evidence for a desire to "restart" is even thinner, usually a handful of photos that look "professional style."

Mixed in through all of this we have two irritating tics.

Marks attributes a lot of emotional charge where no evidence appears. People are always "darting" to places, when the record does not seem to indicate anything beyond "at some point they were present here" and so on, more or less indefinitely. This kind of language, which projects a fantasy of emotional states, is larded very very heavily through the book. It is a rare page that does not contain several instances of this kind of implicit projection. On the one hand, one doesn't want to present a tediously dry narrative of purely what is known, but on the other hand Marks sometimes seems to be constructing personality where, perhaps, not quite enough is known to do that.

The second tic is Marks' constant evaluation of Maier's photos. Marks had access to the entire archive, derived a great deal of value from it, and reproduces many photos from it that we have not yet seen. Marks is not shy about telling us how great they all are, there's always leading lines, and shapes are created by hands, and the light, and blah blah blah. It's truly amateurish, and often seems somewhat desperate. At best, Marks is a huge fan, and projects her doglike careless affection on to everything her idol has done. At worst, it is the closest the book comes to outright hagiography.

At one point Marks is at great pains to deconstruct a mirror selfie, quoting "photographer Dan Wagner" droning on about how hard these shots are, because she had to focus and then — without moving a muscle — pose and press the shutter button. This is all very well until you realize that the focus is all fucked up. It's on the wall behind her, the heating vent in the wall is sharp, Maier is not. Selfies are harder than they look, sure, but come on.

Chapter 14. This is the real nub of Marks' argument, and it's really really problematic.

This is where Marks brings back the family history, and merges that with a bunch of armchair psychology. She interviewed at least three psychologists, specifically on Maier, and interweaves that with her own ideas and theories, arriving at a result.

The result is that Maier was nuts, and she was specifically nuts because of some combination of Bad Genes, and Abuse By Her Mom Who Was Also Nuts, and Abandonment By Her Dad Who Was Also Nuts, and Maybe/Probably Some Sexual Abuse Somewhere Along The Way (for which exactly zero evidence is available.)

Well. That's a sort of a Holy Shit kind of moment.

Ok, Maier is widely remembered as kind of an odd duck, and she definitely had at least something of a hoarding problem. These are pretty well documented. Her brother seems to have at some point been diagnosed as schizophrenic, assuming that Marks has actually identified the right Carl Maier, but that Carl Maier was also a drug addict so...

The fact that Marks was able to, apparently, rope actual certified psychology professional(s) into actually offering even tentative diagnoses based on verbal descriptions of information gleaned from conflicting documents and interviews seems bonkers to me. Surely you could lose your license for this kind of thing? I don't even know, but I found the whole thing disturbing. I went so far as to look some of the shrinks up, and the two I checked on seem to be real people, with real credentials, and real jobs. These are not a bunch of crystal waving hippies.

Having wrapped up this distasteful business, we return to the details of the last years of Maier's life, now informed by the diagnosis of Hoarder Syndrome or whatever it is, and we can now be sure that the reason Maier never developed most of her later film, and never shared photos, is because of her mental illness. Which is just head-clutchingly awful as a theory.

I'm not so progressive as to simply rule out "ok, it's because she was nuts" as a legitimate explanation. On the other hand, I do think you need some pretty sturdy evidence, and I think some temporizing language would be appropriate. Marks is not blunt or mean, but she does not temporize and her evidence is not particularly sturdy. This is her theory, and she's sticking with it, and I think that is a bridge, or several bridges, too far.

The book carries on through Maier's quitting photography, her death 10 years later, and the various shenanigans surrounding the discovery and promotion and controversies around Maier's work, all of which have been thoroughly documented elsewhere. Marks adds little or nothing here, except the usual extremely optimistic spin.

Let us return to the book's thesis: Maier was extremely talented, Maier "would have" wanted success as a photographer, except for "external forces."

The pictures we're shown in the book do not remotely support the talent theory. Indeed, it becomes clear that the vast majority of Maier's oeuvre is well made snapshots, and a surprising amount of it is stuff like newspapers photographed page-by-page (exactly how much is left unclear, one darkly assumes for nefarious reasons). The bangers have all been located and reproduced ad infinitum, and that is likely that. We have seen essentially all the "good ones."

At the same time Marks wants us to be sure that Maier's photos are intensely emotional and profoundly humanistic, and definitely not just snapshots that accidentally looked particularly like a Bresson or a Frank. In order to imbue the now mentally ill abuse victim Maier with a deeply felt emotional sensitivity, grandmother Eugenie is drafted. Surely it is from the saintly Eugenie that Maier acquired her deep sensitivity to the human condition and was thus able to shoot these deeply sensitive humanistic photographs that are deeply sensitive exposés of the human condition despite Maier herself being mentally ill and thus unable to form normal human connections.

Christ. My head hurts.

Just to review, one of the things that is now fairly clear is that Maier managed, in 40 years of shooting, producing an archive of 140,000 photographs, to produce something like 50 pictures that look kind of like other famous photographs. That's it. That's literally it. There is nothing else. Everything else is snapshots (mostly snapshots) and photos of newspapers and the personal effects of her employers (ok, maybe she was nuts?) and pictures of her own shadow and probably another few categories is idiosyncratic fluff.

Back to the book's thesis, item two, Maier "would have" wanted success as a photographer:

The vague feints at arguing that Maier wanted to "go pro" in any sense are ridiculous. If you've spent any time with shutterbugs, you know that every single goddamned one blabs about this unseriously from time to time. If Maier ever seriously manifested a desire to "go pro" we have no real evidence of it, and that is that. Marks clearly made a valiant effort to find supporting evidence, but literally all she could dredge up is things like: well, she took some fairly lame attempts at advertising styled photos.

I have made better efforts, and have never had the slightest interest in "going pro."

Onwards to the "thwarted by external forces."

Here we have the novel idea that it was Maier's childhood of abuse and genetic disposition to mental illness, leading to her own illness, which prevented her from seeking greatness. The hoarding of newspapers speaks to a desire to hold things close, which, somehow, explains why Maier stopped developing the film, I guess because... she already "possessed" those images, so she didn't need to develop the film?

From where I sit, in the cheap seats, this seems just a jaw-droppingly terrible theory. It's offensive. It's not well-supported enough to justify its unsavory implications. It's much too complex to explain the facts at hand. The only reason to suppose "it was the craziness that done it" is because it allows, albeit via a tortured argument, Marks' to "explain" Maier in a way that appeals to her fandom. Seen in those terms, which I think we must, it's quite yucky.

In a section entitled "The Legacy" of an Appendix, Marks wonders at length what Vivian would have wanted.

This is curious, because we don't need the subjunctive here. Maier had agency, and at least some money, we don't have to wonder. We know. She wanted to not develop the film, to sit on a bench reading, to apply vaseline to her hair daily. There is no speculation here. Indeed, Marks is at some slight pains to note that Maier in fact had the resources to develop her film, even at the end of her life. Maier died with several thousand dollars of uncashed checks, a moderate bank balance, and so on. The fact that she had not taken any photos, or developed any film, for at least a decade was decidedly a choice.

The conceit though is that, what if the obstacle, the alleged mental illness, had been removed?

Well, on the one hand, why don't we imagine what she would have wanted if we'd chopped her fucking legs off while we're at it? Who the hell cares what Vivian Maier would have wanted if she had been a different person? This entire question is idiotic.

On the other hand, ok, let's assume that mental illness was in the first place important here, and that in the second place can somehow legitimately be elided for the purposes of thinking it through.

The answer is, and Marks admits as much in the end "we have no idea."

But Marks is a superfan, so of course she lands on the side of "well, let's pretend."

In the end this thing is a monumental effort of biography. Marks expended great effort piecing together a lot of detail, and I am willing to believe she got it substantially correct. A great deal of detail is now available in Ann Marks' files which, if it turns out that Maier gets to join the pantheon of people who are important, will no doubt be wonderful to have.

At the same time, it is a completely bonkers act of fandom. Marks so very much wants Maier to matter, and she wants so very much to explain Maier, that she's constructed a ludicrous tower of cards to support a theory that is, in the end, pretty offensive. This is a theory that will empower the already convinced, the other superfans, but nobody who looks at this book seriously is going to find it convincing at all.

Indeed, the masses of photos reproduced are pretty cringeworthy. We see, for the first time, what the archive actually might look like. I could not find an exact count, but conservatively we're seeing 300 photos that we've not seen before. The published "art books" have something like 50-100 bangers, and another 100 or so vaguely decent filler. This adds 300 or more, which are clearly inferior. The text makes clear that large swathes of the archive are somewhat less than filler. At this point we've seen 500 photos or so, photos that have been picked over as somehow especially noteworthy.

I am confident that this is in fact it. You could already tell with Out of the Shadows that you didn't have to go too deep into the barrel to start finding pretty dull photos. With this latest book we're digging deep into the smellier parts of the midden, and coming up with pretty much what you'd expect from a midden. Now, these are not shitty pictures, they're not wildly bad. They're generally well made snaps, but most of the new pictures we're seeing with this book are unambiguously snaps of no great import.

In the end, the book is not scholarly, but it is interesting to the existing fans who will be most of the audience. It is confident in its story well beyond what the evidence appears to support; it tells a singular straight-line story with no waffling or question marks despite the clearly conflicting document trail.

The book lays out and works its way through a cogent argument, which argument will surely be convincing to the fans because they already believe the story. Indeed, if Marks had been able to genuinely fill in each of the steps in her argument, it would have convinced me as well.

The essential problem Marks encounters in really making each step of her well-laid plan convincing is that none of it is actually true. Supporting evidence for each step is necessarily strained, because it is being stretched to support something that simply isn't true.

The Maier-mania has been fading. This book will probably create a small pop of interest, mainly among superfans, and then perhaps we can lay the whole misfortune to rest.


  1. If your first exposure to Maier was the movie 'Finding Vivian Maier' you're likely to be one of those fans -- it's the power of cinema, the compelling story, pretty well told. Later revelations don't matter. The die is cast.
    Incidentally, no holds on the book here in Portland -- three copies available. I'll pass.

    1. "Later revelations don't matter."

      This. The pictures matter. That is all.

  2. I am truly glad you borrowed the book. Spending money on it may have displeased you greatly and caused you inner turmoil. Maybe even indigestion.
    I also have read it and agree with some of your comments.
    But, I do like some of the earlier published work by Miss Maier. And I especially admire her ability with a hand-held TLR.

    1. It is absolutely ok to like the pictures. I like them too. My argument is not with the photos themselves.

  3. You know, 50 keepers out of 140,000 isn't bad. :)

    HCB had how many, two? The bicycle one and the puddle jumper! (I'm kidding, I'm kidding.)

    1. I know you're joking, but there is a point to be made! Nobody says Harper Lee wasn't a *real* author because she only wrote one book (I deny the second one with both hands) after all.

      If Maier had picked out that 50 or whatever, I might unbend a little. But she didn't.

      She just doesn't seem to have been interested, and all the efforts to refashion her into someone else, someone who was interested, or would have been, are kind of offensive.

      They're only getting away with it because she has no family.

    2. What could be more 21st century than to invent a major photographer who never existed, and stir up a profitable hoo-hah around the nature of the intentions she never had? Sadly, of course, she *did* exist, but we shouldn't let that, or any other so-called "facts" spoil the fun, should we?


  4. The title of this post could nicely be written as 'Vivian Maier, developed by Ann Marks', which is, I guess your point. It's as if Maier herself is the latent image being developed.

  5. After reading this blog post, I borrowed a copy of this book from my local library ... no waiting, either!

    And while I generally agree with everything you wrote about it, I nevertheless found it to be a pleasant, enjoyable read.

    Just as I sometimes enjoy watching a movie that doesn't strictly follow the plot of the book on which it is based.

    So maybe the issue here isn't so much the book, but the general audience it targeted?

    (As an aside, I was surprised to find several copies of the book on the shelf at my local library branch. To me, this suggests the publisher either gave away a lot of copies or did a great job of promoting and marketing it to libraries!)