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Who was Vivian Maier? A new book explores the inspired life of the nanny with a secret gift for photography.

In 2007, writer and director John Maloof bought a box of photograph negatives at auction for roughly $400. He was hoping to find photos for a book about his Northwest Chicago neighborhood. He ended up with a trove of negatives, prints and undeveloped rolls shot by a former local nanny named Vivian Maier. Over the next few years, working with another collector, Jeff Goldstein, he compiled a comprehensive archive of Maier’s work, introduced it to the art world and produced the 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.” After the release of the film, Maier — who died in 2009 without knowing any of this — became something of an international celebrity, a source of fascination not just for her work but for the mysterious circumstances of its creation.

Among those captivated by Maier was Ann Marks, a former corporate executive who saw the documentary the year it came out. Deeply intrigued by the mysteries and unanswered questions surrounding Maier, she decided to investigate herself. The result is “Vivian Maier Developed,” an engrossing and beautiful biography highlighted by Maier’s exceptional photographs.

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At the time of Maloof’s film, little was known about Maier. Even the families she worked for were able to tell the filmmakers only that she spent six years in France as a child, lived in Manhattan until she was 30, then moved to Chicago where she remained until her death. No one knew where she was born, what happened to her family, how she got into photography, why she left so much film unprocessed or why she kept her work largely secret. “But where most saw an impenetrable mystery,” Marks writes, “I saw gaps that needed filling, and felt compelled to unravel the story that had confounded so many.”

When they learned of Marks’s interest, she recalls, Maloof and Goldstein “independently requested that I write a comprehensive and authoritative biography of Vivian Maier and offered me access to all of their photographs. Thus, I became the only person in the world to examine their combined archive of 140,000 images, which served as the cornerstone of this biography.”

If examining 140,000 images sounds daunting, it was just one piece of the herculean task Marks set herself. To fill in the blanks of Maier’s life, Marks brought into play a panoply of talents and attributes: extraordinary sleuthing skills, intuition, resourcefulness and persistence; profound empathy; an astute visual aesthetic and highly developed powers of observation; and last but not least, a logical and lucid prose style.

And so now we have the whole story — or just about the whole story — of Vivian Maier. As Marks sees it, “dichotomous elements built her complicated persona: French country sensibility, urban sophistication, immense creative and intellectual resources, and the effects of a profoundly traumatic childhood. They coalesced into a one-of-a-kind personality whose motives and actions were difficult to discern.”

But discern them she has. As Marks unfurls the story of Maier’s life, every phase is illustrated with photographs, so that reading the book is something like attending a wonderful slide lecture. She traces Maier’s family tree back through France’s Champsaur valley, where Maier’s maternal forebears lived and where she spent part of her childhood, and New York City, where she was born in 1926. Shortly afterward, Maier’s parents split up. Her father left, and her mother shrugged off the task of parenting, leaving young Vivian to be raised largely by others. “I was shuffled around a lot,” as she told one employer.

She began taking pictures in her 20s, photographing European landscapes and people. Returning to New York in 1951, she began to shoot pictures of what was to become “her favorite place on earth.” She documented the ’50s with street photography, including images of “mothers galore, some carbon copies of one another, with almost identical coats, hairstyles, and sobbing children.” She was always interested in “capturing the intersections of race and class,” and began her huge portfolio of celebrity images with a shot of Salvador Dali in 1952, eventually photographing Lena Horne, Richard Nixon and Ava Gardner. She took pictures of her young charges at every home where she was employed. Her happiest decade was spent with the Gensburgs of Chicago, “who became the family she never had.” During this time, she took a six-month leave to travel around the world by herself, resulting in a wonderful series of images of global headgear.

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In the 1960s, the difficulties that would shape the latter part of Maier’s life began to surface, hoarding disorder foremost among them. She began to take pictures of newspapers, page by page, as well as images of teetering stacks of papers. “By the early 1980s,” Marks reports, “Vivian was spending all her money on storage lockers, where she stashed a combined eight tons of newspapers, books, and photographic material.”

Considering that hardly a thing was known about Maier when Marks began her project, her achievement in documenting Maier’s peregrinations and troubles with such clarity and feeling is remarkable. Dogged and creative original research enabled her to track down and interview people who knew Maier at every phase of her life. Marks studied archives to identify the buildings where Maier had set her photographs, then used phone books and census records to zero in on the people depicted. In a delightful appendix called “The Backstories,” she describes “the convoluted, sometimes preposterous lengths I would go to track down my quarry.” In another appendix, she shares “Genealogical Tips” to help others “work less to find more.”

She also sets the record straight on controversies involving Vivian’s archive and the interpretation of her life. She points out that “the well-intended art and feminist communities drove matters off track early on by voicing long-standing biases against the attribution of mental illness to explain artists’ talent or women’s decision-making. … The problem is that in the case of Vivian Maier, it was trauma and mental illness that drove many of her critical choices.”

In Marks’s hands, Vivian’s troubles are part and parcel of the rare person she was, a proud and intelligent loner who used the work of caregiving and the language of photography to forge a productive existence and leave her mark on the world. “Her extraordinary personal qualities,” Marks writes, “enabled her to turn every obstacle on its head and craft a life that made her feel secure and satisfied. Happiness is relative, and considering her origins and the fate of her family, Vivian lived an inspired life.”

Marks believes that although she never sought recognition in her lifetime, Maier would have thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected way her posthumous story has unfolded. “It’s a one-in-a-million ending — another beginning, really — to an already remarkable life,” Marks declares. “If she had read the account in a newspaper, Vivian would have loved the particulars. … She would have absorbed every juicy detail and stood on the sidelines with her camera, intent on capturing it all.”

Now there’s another thing she would likely love — the astounding work Marks has done in creating this biography. You will surely close this excellent book feeling inspired.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”

Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny

By Ann Marks

Atria. 355 pp. $40

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