What we know of the story of Vivian Maier's life and work, and of how 30,000 of her negatives came to be acquired at a Chicago estate auction by a 26-year-old real estate agent and amateur historian, is breathtaking.
Maier was born in New York City to a French mother and an Austrian father; her father left by the time Maier was four, and she grew up mostly in France, with intervals in New York. In 1951, at age 25, Maier returned to New York City, and worked in a rag trade sweatshop. She learned English from the movies, but retained her French accent. In 1956, she moved to Chicago and started working as a nanny. She held that position with various well-to-do North Shore families for the next forty years; she even nannied Phil Donahue's kids for a while. On her days off, Maier would head out in the early morning on her moped, dressed in a man's jacket and shoes and armed most often with a Rolleiflex camera, to shoot roll after roll of street scenes.
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But it took two years before John Maloof, the real estate agent who discovered that cache of negatives, could even learn Vivian Maier's name. In that time, Maloof realized that he had in his possession the artifacts of a major, and previously undiscovered, voice in American 20th Century photography — a woman who made careful notations of the dates and locations of her shots in longhand, and who left many self-portraits, but who hadn't included any identifying information in the box he'd acquired. Inquiries at the auction house that had handled the sale of Maier's effects, from storage units she'd stopped paying rent on, didn't turn up any information about who she was. Maloof tracked down some of the other people who had bought Maier's pictures at the auction and offered to buy what they had; he eventually came to own over 100,000 of her negatives.
It was in one of these boxes that Maloof found an envelope from a print shop with the name "Vivian Maier" written on the back. Maloof Googled her; a death notice that had run one day earlier in the
Chicago Tribune classifieds was the top hit.
UPDATE: Turns out that story is too good to be true. A man named Ron Slattery, who is friends with Maloof, also bought some of Maier's negatives at the auction in question. Slattery says he and Maloof both knew Maier's name prior to her death, although they could not determine her whereabouts (turns out she was in a Chicago area nursing home), and that he and Maloof discussed their discoveries together frequently. In July, 2008, Slattery posted a number of Maier's photographs to his blog, crediting Maier by name.
Maloof, interviewed above, tracked down and interviewed some of the children Maier nannied — some of whom are in their 50s and 60s now — including the three who paid for the death notice. They describe Maier as a feminist, a socialist, and an excellent, caring nanny who shepherded them on trips into the city to see art films and into the countryside to explore and forage for strawberries.
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What's incredible is how little remains known about Maier's life: just last month, Maloof, who is blogging the ongoing process of processing Maier's undeveloped film and digitizing her negatives, announced that he'd just discovered that for six months of 1959 and 1960, Maier traveled solo around the world. It's thought that with the proceeds of the sale of her stake in a family farm in France, she went to — and photographed — Egypt, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Italy, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
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Maier had no children of her own, and she is believed never to have married; she spent most of her spare time shooting and working in an at-home darkroom she converted from a bathroom. She was an intensely private person, and she had some hoarder tendencies. In addition to saving all her tens of thousands of negatives and prints, she kept old newspapers, audio recordings of herself and others, and by the late 1980s, she was carting around some 200 boxes. In addition to the negatives, Maloof now has several of Maier's cameras, audio tapes of her voice, and clothes and books that belonged to her. (Her library seems dedicated mainly to photography.)
Another Chicago area man, Jeff Goldstein, developed an interest in Maier's photography roughly simultaneously to Maloof. Goldstein's collection comprises some 12,500 images and several videos (they are viewable on YouTube). In looking at the work, most of which still hasn't been seen by anyone but its creator, "We feel we are participating in a continual discovery," says Goldstein:
Driven by her sequestered, private motivations, Vivian Maier captured our cities, suburbs and rural towns. A nanny for many years, herself childless, Maier revealed the beauties and complexities of domesticity. Her photographs demonstrate an intimate exploration of family life, as well as seemingly allegorical treatments of "home" — a space sometimes idyllic and whole, and sometimes troubled — as in her photographs of homes destroyed by tornadoes or street riots. In this present collection, we witness her sophisticated, expansive approach to setting and subject matter both intimate and grand. The photographic subjects range from Salvador Dali to Nixon; from poignant self-portraits to photos of the unnamed on the street. She documented the exhilaration of Macy's parades, along with the quiet of cemeteries, scenes of road kill, the life of flowers and her worldwide travels.
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Maloof, meanwhile, is working on a book and a documentary about Maier. (You can support those projects on Kickstarter.) The first solo exhibition of Maier's work just opened at the Chicago Cultural Center; it's up until April.
Maier retired from working as a nanny in the mid-1990s, and her later years were marked by poverty, although Maloof says he found stock certificates and uncashed checks among her effects. After some time during which her exact address and activities remain unknown, the children whom she nannied for the longest — the ones she took strawberry-picking — got her an apartment. Maier died in April of 2009 at age 83, the consequences of a fall that she had suffered around Christmas of 2008.
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Maier's work sort of recalls that of another French photographer obsessed with shop windows and street life and places where people mix, whose photography was also largely ignored until after his death: Eugène Atget. Maier's work has wit and emotional wallop, and she began creating it at a time when women photographers were rare. Maloof has so far seen only a fraction of her work: Who knows what outstanding images are still waiting to be discovered?
A Developing Picture: The Story Of Vivian Maier [Chicago Sun-Times]
The Life And Work Of Street Photographer Vivian Maier [Chicago Magazine]
Getting The Right Angle On Vivian Maier [Gaper's Block]
Vivian Maier — Her Discovered Work [Official Site]
Vivian Maier Photography [Official Site]
Vivian Maier Photography YouTube Channel [YouTube]