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Ann Marks, who spent months researching the upbringing of the Chicago nanny who is now heralded as a master of street photography, still doesn’t have an answer. But Ms. Marks — who has no background in photography and started researching Maier only after seeing a documentary about her life — has learned a great deal about Maier’s family history.

 

Maier’s parents were unhappy in their marriage from the day she was born. She grew up in the shadow of an older brother who spent time in a vocational school and, later in life, a psychiatric hospital. Both Maier children spent time living with guardians other than their parents, from grandparents to foster parents. Meanwhile, both of Maier’s grandmothers had negative things to say about their own children, her parents.

 

And yet some of the family difficulties she encountered in childhood may have contributed to the photographer she became. From early childhood, Maier spent a significant amount of time with a woman named Jeanne Bertrand, who worked as a professional photographer, as well as other positive female role models.

 

“There’s always this incredible elusiveness about the maker of those photos,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, who was one of the first to acquire and champion her work. “To me, it’s miraculous,” he said of Ms. Marks’s research. “It’s absolutely miraculous.”