Vivian Maier: (Posthumous) Queen of Street Photography

6 years ago

When John Maloof purchased a stash of old negatives at an antique auction, he was just hoping to score a few choice shots for his book, a photo history of Chicago's northwest side. Instead, Maloof discovered one of the most extensive photographic treasures ever to be unveiled: The stunning street photography of Vivian Maier, a name with no recognition.

In total, Maloof has acquired 100,000+ negatives and 3,000+ prints, and most have never been seen by anyone, not even by Vivian Maier herself.

When I'd first heard the Vivian Maier story from my cultural multi-vitamin VSL a few weeks ago, I quickly dropped whatever I was working on and spent a good hour losing myself in Maier's stunning photographs. (Maloof has set up a blog to highlight her works and his efforts at presevering and displaying them.)

The anonymous portraits, indelible street scenes and intimate moments captured through her Rolleiflex lens reveal the many facets of 50s/60s/70s Chicago -- fashionable, harsh, charming and real. Maier was the ultimate witness to so many forgotten scenes -- a businessman napping in his car, a child crying unnoticed, a crumpled curbside bum, a dead pigeon in the trash, a smoking mother scolding her son. These riveting slivers of life captured through Maier's skilled eye are seemingly endless. That an anonymous French nanny's name is now being spoken alongside photographic legends like Walker Evans and Robert Frank indicate Maier's level of talent. Clearly, Maier's lone wolf existence served her well.

Initially, Maloof's grab-bag bounty came without any labeling or clue about the original owner. Maloof eventually found Maier's name scratched on a label and asked the auction house if he could get in touch with her. (The photos had sparked his own interest in photography and he was innocently seeking tips on how to improve his skill.) He was told the woman was ill so Maloof let her be.

But after nearly a year of digging through her photos, Maloof decided one day to google Vivian Maier's name. Just one entry popped up: Maier's obituary in the Chicago Tribune, posted the day before. Four months after taking a tumble on the ice, Vivian Maier had passed away at age 83 in April 2009, without knowing that anyone had seen her incredible photographs. (Google now has 609,000 listings for 'Vivian Maier.')


"My vision is to put Vivian in the history books."
--John Maloof

Maier -- by all accounts, a very private woman -- had evidently gotten behind in payments on her storage locker. And so the contents (mostly medium format negatives, thousands of prints, and countless undeveloped rolls of film) were donated to the auction house. Soon after, Maloof came along, spotted the immense stash, and paid $400 for the entire contents. (Later, he acquired other personal belongings, like big hats, funky shoes, photography books and tape recordings.)

"It's almost like Mary Poppins, right?"
--John Maloof, speaking to CBS News re: Vivian Maier

Maloof, a real estate agent with no photography experience, admittedly didn't know enough to know what he had, so he consulted others that did. In 2009, he posted a few of Maier's shots on Flickr, asking for opinions and advice:

"I purchased a giant lot of negatives from a small auction house here in Chicago. It is the work of Vivian Maier, a French born photographer who recently past away in April of 2009 in Chicago, where she resided. I opened a blogspot blog with her work here;

I have a ton of her work (about 30-40,000 negatives) which ranges in dates from the 1950's-1970's. I guess my question is, what do I do with this stuff? Check out the blog. Is this type of work worthy of exhibitions, a book? Or do bodies of work like this come up often?

Any direction would be great."

--johnmaloof, in a posting entitled, "What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?" asking for advice on Flickr, 10/9/09

By the next day, he had over 200 emails from around the world, including offers for books, exhibitions and documentaries. Once Maloof realized what a unique treasure he'd stumbled onto, he got moving; Maier's first exhibition was held in Oslo, Norway, December 2010.

The story of Vivian Maier's life is shrouded in mystery and Maloof actually hired a genealogist to fill in the blanks. Born in New York in 1926 to an Austrian father and a French mother, Maier spent much of her formative years in France, where she was heavily influenced by the culture. (She spoke with a French accent, preferred European cinema and all the film capsules were labeled in French.)

Maier worked for many years as a nanny and housekeeper in Chicago. She even worked for talk show host, Phil Donahue, caring for his four children. "I remember I called her 'Mrs. Maier' once and she corrected me. "It's 'Ms. Maier!' And I'm proud of it," Donahue recently recalled.

People interviewed from her day job recall a woman who exuded lively adventure to the children she was charged with rearing, but kept a cold distance from the adults who employed her. Life for Vivian Maier was all about the days off, when she'd hit the Chicago streets with a camera hanging from her neck. (Though her photos reveal that she traveled the world extensively as well -- alone, of course.)


"She's not trying to charm anybody. She's ruthlessly honest and I think she should be taken seriously."
--Joel Meyerowitz, co-author of "Bystander: A History of Street Photography"

As for John Maloof, it appears that Vivian Maier's life work has become his -- and there are still 90,000 negatives in his attic he hasn't even seen yet.

"There's so much work I'm doing, there's times when it's overwhelming to the point where I have anxiety about how much there is to do. And how little I've done with all the work I put in. And sometimes there's quiet moments where I'm scanning by myself and I just think, 'Wha…?' It's amazing that I'm doing this. That someone like me is doing this."
--John Maloof, in an interview with
Chicago Tonight

Maloof and his friend, Anthony Rydzon, spend four to five days a week going through all the negatives and prints, scanning for posterity. At this rate, it will take them several years to complete the project of scanning Maier's exhaustive work. While some have pointed out that Maloof is sitting on a gold mine, that has yet to be seen. Fact is, Maloof has already spent thousands of his own dollars in film processing, software and scanning equipment. Remember, the guy sold real estate before Maier appeared in his life; he wasn't exactly prepared for this.

"I want to thank everyone for their support and encouraging emails. There's a lot of weight on my shoulders and I hope I'm doing the right thing for Vivian's legacy."
--John Maloof, in a blog post dated 1/11/10

As for thoughts about what Vivian Maier might say about all this posthumous attention, Maloof has no idea. He does, however, point to a telling snippet found on a cassette recording of Maier:

"Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It's a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on. And somebody else takes their place."
--Vivian Maier

Sounds like that somebody else might just be the very dedicated John Maloof.

An exhibition of her work just opened at the Chicago Cultural Center and it runs through early April. (The show includes 80 photographs, just a sliver of her extensive collection.) Meanwhile, a book of Maier's work is scheduled to be released in Fall 2011, and a feature-length documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, is scheduled for a 2012 release. The filmmakers -- John Maloof, Anthony Rydzon, and award-winning Danish documentary filmmaker, Lars Mortensen -- are asking the public for funding donations through March 14. At last check, they had already raised over $77,000.

For a brilliant woman who reveled in anonymity and fiercely defended her privacy, sounds like Vivian Maiers left just in time. 

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
(All photographs taken by Vivian Maiers, sourced from John Maloof's blog based on her work.)

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