Vivian Maier took a lot of self-portraits, but for whom? Albert Mobilio once described her as “her own unwilling subject.” She appears to have liked incorporating mirrors — and the photographer in the mirror — more as a formal exercise than an attempt at self-revelation or self-examination. We now know of her work because her possessions were purchased at auction after she’d stop paying for the storage spaces in which she kept decades’ worth of prints, negatives, and undeveloped film, thousands upon thousands of frames in all. Eight years after her death in 2009 — just around the time some of her imagery was starting to seep out via the internet — and six years after the first exhibitions of her work began to draw serious attention, she is famous, but still unknown. Possibly that’s how she would have liked it. She depicted herself, Mobilio noticed, as “aloof and contentedly so.”
Now a biography has appeared, and its author, Pamela Bannos, has trawled through the archives to find new facts and clear up misunderstandings. Most importantly, she examined as much of Maier’s work as she could get her hands on in order to trace her movements, sometimes minute by minute, from the time she first picked up a camera through the 1970s, when her photographic record starts to peter out, either because Maier stopped working as assiduously as she had for so many years, or because later works were lost in the dispersal of her stored archive. One surprise is that Maier was not simply a “street photographer” of New York and Chicago; she traveled extensively in order to take pictures. A 1959 trip took her around the world, starting with a train journey to Los Angeles, heading by ship from there to the Philippines and through Asia to Europe and then back to the States via New York. Quite a holiday for a someone living on a nanny’s wages, but a serious working trip for a photographer.
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