When You Buy a Vivian Maier Photo, You Buy Her Life, Not Her Work

Maier took photos as a hobby for most of her life, but her talent was discovered just before she died—and today, it's the romantic story consumers project onto her art that fuels her acclaim.

Vivian Maier, born in New York City in 1926, lived most of her life in everyday, normal-person obscurity. Her grandmother and mother were French immigrants, and both moved precariously through various odd jobs; Maier herself worked much of her life as a nanny for wealthy families in Chicago's suburbs.

But shortly before her death in 2009, it was discovered that Maier had taken thousands of photographs, squirreling away the images and negatives (some never developed) in storage lockers. When her payments on those lockers lapsed, the contents were purchased by bidders, and Maier's photographs made their way, by chance and happenstance, from thrift store to art world notice.

Today, Maier is celebrated as an artistic genius. Her photos, as The Vivian Maier Mystery, a BBC documentary released to VOD this week, is careful to tell us, sell for thousands of dollars.

And what do purchasers get for those thousands of dollars? The film argues, firmly and consistently, that what they get is great art; various photographers and curators talk about Maier's compositional skill, her artistic vision, her technical abilities. But while they're never entirely articulated, there are other possible sources of value lurking in the narrative.

"People identify with her; they love the story, and then they love the work," gallery owner Steven Kasher says in The Vivian Maier Mystery, and Kasher's formulation— "they love the story, and then they love the work"—can mean that buyers love both story and work. But it might also mean that they love the story first, and then love the work because of the story. If that's the case, people may be paying thousands of dollars not for a particularly striking composition, but for a chance to be part of Maier's odd narrative—to participate in the story of the secret, humble genius, now revealed.

This sort of question about the intent of both viewer and artist often comes up with "outsider artists" like Maier. If a creator lived and worked outside the institutional art context, what is the incentive, and what exactly are the politics, of bringing them inside? Is putting them in the gallery an honor? And if so, for whom?

The film does not use the term "outsider artist," but Maier does not appear to have had any formal training and didn't show in galleries during her lifetime. In part this may have reflected her own individual preferences or difficulties; she was by many accounts a temperamental, private person, and seems to have struggled with mental illness late in life. In part, her distance from the high art world was probably because she was working-class. Many of her pictures are of the children who were in her care; they show kids at the beach climbing over rocks, children happy, children sad.

If those sound like your typical family photos, well, they are. Several interviewees in the documentary argue that Maier was both inside and outside the suburban milieu she photographed, and suggest that that distance elevated (or "transcended," as one talking head says) the snapshot. But if you didn't know that she was both inside and outside, it's not entirely clear that the photos would transcend anything in particular. When the film goes to France, where Maier spent some of her childhood, one of her school friends looks at a picture of her mother which Maier took, and says, Hey, I'd like to keep this, it's a nice picture of my mother. The school friend reacts with recognition and nostalgia—in other words, the way you would to a family photo album. She likes it because it shows her mother, not because it's formally beautiful, or insightful. She's looking at it as a personal memento, not as art.

This is not to deny that Maier was a conscious artist. There's no question that photography was important to her. She always carried a camera with her, hung around her neck, and she went through a roll of film a day, day after day, for years. She seems to have attended photography exhibits as well, and to have had a sense of the form’s history; she photographed Salvador Dalí when he was in Chicago for an exhibition of French photographic work.

Moreover, some of Maier's images do in fact fit easily into the category of art. She would often go downtown and wander around the city, taking pictures of street scenes and individuals. In particular, she would go to lower-class communities and photograph homeless people, or poor people, or drunks. As art critic Bert Stabler notes in a skeptical essay at Proximity magazine, art photography has a longstanding interest in images of the marginalized.

"[T]he assumption," as he says, seems to be that "we are ennobled by the images of people whose bondage and suffering ultimately undergirds our liberty and comfort—and whose misery deeply fascinates us." From this perspective, Maier is the perfect art photographer. Herself one of the marginalized, she takes pictures of other marginalized people, validating the images with her own outsider status even as her biography takes its place beside, or on top of, her photos as another ennobling commodity for the collector.

But Kasher noted, remember, that people identify with Maier. In some ways, this seems questionable. Given how little we know about Maier's inner life, it seems like there shouldn't be much to identify with. But perhaps the identification is not so much that gallery goers identify with Maier per se, but rather that they recognize and identify with the kinds of pictures she took. Family snapshots; images of ’50s and ’60s Chicago, redolent with nostalgic and historical interest; aestheticized pictures of the marginal. Maier's images—made, the story tells us, by an isolated genius—fit neatly into entirely comfortable categories. Her outsider status, then, serves to suggest that those on the margins are really the same under the skin as those in the center, while at the same time casting a glamour of oddness and suffering over all those things you'd be happy to look at anyway.

My discomfort with the way Maier's work is presented and used in the film and the art world is in no way a condemnation of the artist herself. She, after all, had no part in her own marketing, and certainly never planned for her images to be seen or lauded. The voice-over towards the end of the film insists that "her compulsion to take pictures was her life," but that's the film's assessment, not hers. It's a story the film has imposed upon her, for its own purposes. Watching the movie, you get the uncomfortable feeling that a whole lot of people want Vivian Maier's life to be her pictures so that, in owning or looking at them, both can be consumed.