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Vivian Maier, renowned 20th century photographer, was unknown until her death in 2009


Vivian Maier is considered one of the nation's greatest photographers of the 20th century. But her genius did not come to light until after she died in 2009. That's when the contents of her storage containers, more than 140,000 photographs and negatives, gained the attention of curators and critics. Museum exhibits and two film documentaries followed. Author Ann Marks spent years researching Maier's gifted but troubled life to write "Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story Of The Photographer Nanny." Ann Marks joins us now from New York City.

Ann, thanks for being with us.

ANN MARKS: It's my pleasure.

GONYEA: So Maier is best known as a street photographer. Can you tell us about maybe just a couple of your favorite images and what they say about her style?

MARKS: Well, actually, there's a picture of a woman in front of the New York Library, and she is very kind of elusive and mysterious, and she comes into the frame, like, as if she's sort of a Venus. And then she's framed by the New York Library steps and pillars. But the amazing thing about that photograph is that Vivian took it from a bus. And it's considered one of her best.

GONYEA: Two documentaries were released several years ago. One is called "Finding Vivian Maier." The other is "The Vivian Maier Mystery." They told the story, but you wanted to know more, not just about her photos but about her life. What drove you to start to really unravel this story?

MARKS: Well, what happened was I watched the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier." And, of course, I was taken in by her photographs, but it really seemed surprising to me that people described her in such different ways. So some people would say she's mean. Some would say she's nice. I wanted to kind of reconcile that. And then also, I was surprised that even with all the genealogists, no one could trace her family background at all. So I felt like maybe I could. And I just started and never stopped.

GONYEA: The area of Vivian Maier's life we know the least about was her childhood. Some of it was spent in Europe. What sort of upbringing did Maier have?

MARKS: Well, Vivian was mostly raised by her mother. And her mother was a very troubled person. She was an illegitimate child in France. So she came to New York, married a man, Charles Maier, who was an alcoholic, a gambler and could be violent. And then they had Vivian. Then the father left the family. And this unstable mother was who raised Vivian. And from what we can tell, she was basically ignored. No one paid attention to her. No one cared about her. So that's why she wanted to walk away from her family and never look back.

GONYEA: As a young woman, Maier made a living as a nanny, working first in New York and in Los Angeles and particularly in Chicago. She was even nanny at one point to the TV personality Phil Donahue's children in Chicago after his divorce. How did that time, broadly, living with families, taking care of children affect how she took photos and I guess what she took photos of?

MARKS: It's interesting because in New York, she seemed to be much more focused on being an actual commercial photographer. And even though she was nannying, she was engaged with the photographic community. And there's many, many pictures of her trying different kinds of photographs and a few examples of when she sold them. Once she moved to Chicago, she became the nanny of the Gensburg family for 11 years, and it was really the happiest time of her life. So there, while she did take some street photographs, there were a lot more kind of everyday family pictures. And she didn't become involved in the photographic community at all. It was a complete reversal of how she looked at photography, and it became just more a hobby for her.

GONYEA: There's something you write about her photographs that I found very interesting, and it set her apart. Portraits and photographs of children tended to be very unsentimental. They weren't idealizing kids. She paid attention to the elderly in a very respectful way in her photographs. And the images she took of workers, working class people kind of imbued them with a certain dignity.

MARKS: I think that's one of the most interesting things about Vivian. A lot of the children told me that the pictures they have of themselves - they're wrapped up like little birthday presents. You know, they're scrubbed. They're smiling. They're happy. And in Vivian's, they're crying. They're throwing tantrums. And she was into the authenticity of people, not into the artifice of photographing children.

GONYEA: As you've said, some people who've looked at her life and looked at her work have drawn the conclusion that she would not like how all of this has played out since her death. She would not like that we now know what we know about her life and her journey. What's your take on that?

MARKS: Well, that idea kind of took root because Vivian was a private person when the people who knew her in Chicago and all the people that were interviewed in the films were from Chicago. And they never saw that she wanted to be a photographer and that she shared her photographs very - in very many occasions in New York. Look. I know one family that has a hundred vintage prints from her. And by the time she went to Chicago, you'd be lucky if you got two. But she had hoarding disorder that progressively worsens over time. And she was hoarding newspapers. And she was also hoarding photographs. So she may have wanted to show and share her photographs, but she couldn't because she was hoarding them. And she was very fatalistic that she thought once you're dead, you know, it's over with, for others to decide. And we know she thought her work was good, so it wasn't that she was embarrassed to show it. You could really make an argument that she would have been fine with this. And in fact, one of the most interesting things - she's obsessed with celebrity. And who's to say she wouldn't have wanted to be a celebrity herself after the fact when she could have?

GONYEA: Ann Marks is the author of "Vivian Maier Developed." Thank you so much for joining us today.

MARKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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