The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier
A LIFE IN SHADOW: The North Shore families who hired Vivian Maier as a nanny came to know a kind but eccentric woman who guarded her private life and kept a huge stash of boxes. A chance discovery after her death by a man named John Maloof has spotlighted her secret talent as a photographer and led to a growing appreciation of her vast work.
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Maier often included herself—or her shadow—in her photos. To see more of Maier's work, view the photo gallery »
On an unremarkable day in late 2007, John Maloof, a young real-estate agent, spent some time at a local auction house, RPN Sales in Portage Park, combing through assortments of stuff—some of it junk—that had been abandoned or repossessed. A third-generation reseller, Maloof hoped to find some historical photographs for a small book about Portage Park that he was cowriting on the side. He came across a box that had been repossessed from a storage locker, and a hasty search revealed a wealth of black-and-white shots of the Loop from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s got to be something pertinent in there, he thought. So he plunked down about $400 for the box and headed home. A closer examination unearthed no scenes of Portage Park, though the box turned out to contain more than 30,000 negatives. Maloof shoved it all into his closet.
Something nagged, however—perhaps a reflex picked up from working the flea market circuit as a poor kid growing up on the West Side of Chicago. Though he knew almost nothing about photography, he eventually returned to the box and started looking through the negatives, scanning some into his computer. There was a playfulness to the moments the anonymous artist had captured: a dapper preschool boy peeking from the corner of a grimy store window; an ample rump squeezing through the wooden planks of a park bench; a man in a three-piece suit napping, supine, in the front seat of his car, his right arm masking his face from the daylight. Whoa, Maloof mused. These are really cool. Who took them?
A contact at the auction house didn’t know the photographer’s name but told Maloof that the contents of the repossessed storage locker had belonged to an elderly woman who was ill. As time passed, Maloof tracked down a handful of people who had acquired similar caches of negatives once owned by the same woman, and he bought the boxes off them. With the collection becoming expensive to maintain, this lifelong reseller did what came naturally: He cut up some of the negatives and hawked them on eBay. They proved startlingly popular—some sold for as much as $80 a pop. Maloof realized that he’d come across something special, and he determined to crack the case of the anonymous photographer.
One day in late April 2009, more than a year after he bought that first box at RPN, Maloof got a break. He found an envelope from a photo lab buried in one of the boxes. Scribbled in pencil was a name: Vivian Maier. One hit from a Google search linked to an item from the Chicago Tribune that had been posted just days before. It was the paid death notice for an 83-year-old woman: “Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.”
After a call to the Tribune left him with a faulty address and a disconnected phone number, Maloof didn’t know where to turn. In the meantime, though, he started displaying Maier’s work on a blog, vivianmaier.com. Then, in October 2009, he linked to the blog on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, and posted a question about Maier’s pictures on a discussion board devoted to street photography: “What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?”
The discussion went viral. Suggestions poured in, and websites from around the world sent traffic to his blog. (If you Google “Vivian Maier” today, you’ll get more than 18,000 results.) Maloof recognized that this was bigger than he’d thought.
He was right about that. Since his tentative online publication of a smattering of Vivian Maier’s photographs, her work has generated a fanatical following. In the past year, her photos have appeared in newspapers in Italy, Argentina, and England. There have been exhibitions in Denmark and Norway, and a showing is scheduled to open in January at the Chicago Cultural Center. Few of the pictures had ever been seen before by anyone other than Maier herself, and Maloof has only scratched the surface of what she left behind. He estimates that he’s acquired 100,000 of her negatives, and another interested collector, Jeff Goldstein, has 12,000 more (some of them displayed at vivianmaierphotography.com). Most of Maier’s photos are black and white, and many feature unposed or casual shots of people caught in action—passing moments that nonetheless possess an underlying gravity and emotion. And Maier apparently ranged far and wide with her camera—there are negatives from Los Angeles, Egypt, Bangkok, Italy, the American Southwest. The astonishing breadth and depth of Maier’s work led Maloof to pursue two questions, as alluring in their way as her captivating photographs: Who was Vivian Maier, and what explains her extraordinary vision?
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Photography: Courtesy of the Maloof Collection