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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.

Maier often included herself—or her shadow—in her photos.   Photo: Courtesy of the Maloof Collection

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When I first visit his two-flat, I’m blown away by the sheer amount of stuff Maloof has acquired. Upstairs is Vivian Central. By Maloof’s rough estimate, he now owns more than half a dozen of her cameras, more than a hundred 8 mm movies, 3,000 prints, 2,000 rolls of film, and 100,000 negatives. Steamer trunks and boxes line an attic wall. He pops open a trunk bursting with Maier’s clothes—felt hats, baggy coats in muted tones, black shoes so heavy they could double as dumbbells. Many of the boxes contain newspaper clippings encased in plastic frames or vinyl binders stuffed with everything from movie reviews to obituaries. One headline catches my eye: “Fellow Veterans Honor Victim of 1995 Heat Wave,” on a story about Rodney Holmquist, who had served in the navy and died alone. Twenty veterans rescued his body from a pauper’s grave and reburied him with military honors.

Although Maloof has thrown out numerous boxes full of newspapers, he’s holding on to the rest of Maier’s belongings to search for more clues to her story. In late 2009, he ran into an old high-school friend, Anthony Rydzon, who had majored in documentary filmmaking at Columbia College, and Rydzon suggested they make a film about Maier. They had the time: Rydzon had recently lost his job as a stagehand, and Maloof had switched from selling real estate to reselling products on eBay. Today their movie project is on hold, but there’s talk that a professional documentary team might be interested in telling Maier’s story. The two friends spend nearly every day in the attic scanning Maier’s photographs, prepping prints for various exhibitions, and sifting through boxes for new leads on people they might interview.

The immense volume of the photos makes for a daunting archiving effort. Maloof estimates that he’s scanned only one-tenth of the negatives in his collection—and he’s barely glanced at the remaining 90,000. When he finds a particularly strong photograph, he posts it on his blog.

With the excitement online and the exhibits around the world (the Cultural Center show opens January 7th), there is ample evidence of the popularity of Maier’s work, but how much of that stems from the unusual story of Maloof’s discovery and the curious nature of the woman behind it all? During our interview, Phil Donahue—who knew Maier only as a nanny, not an artist—asked, “Is there a preponderance of evidence out there that these [photographs] are really special?”

Colin Westerbeck, the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s leading experts on street photography, thinks Maier is an interesting case. He inspected her work after Maloof e-mailed him. “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.” Westerbeck explains that Maier’s work lacks the level of irony and wit of some of her Chicago contemporaries, such as Harry Callahan or Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and unlike them, she herself is often a participant in the shot. The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, know how to create a distance from their subjects.

Yet Westerbeck admits that he understands the allure of Maier’s work. “She was a kind of mysterious figure,” he says. “What’s compelling about her pictures is the way that they capture the local character of Chicago in the past decades.”

In any case, John Maloof has made it his mission to spread the word on his remarkable discovery. “I owe Vivian an honest effort to get her recognized as one of the great photographers of her time,” he says. “I’m only spending time on her story because the world is demanding it from me. The more I learn about Vivian, the more fascinated I am about this woman. She was a singular person, extremely intelligent, and her talent was extraordinary. I get great satisfaction in sharing it with the world.”

But Maier was an intensely private person. What would she think of Maloof’s mission? Wouldn’t she hate it? Maloof believes she wouldn’t mind because the world has moved on, and he lets her speak for herself. After a long search, he plays a recording from an interview she conducted with an elderly woman: “I suppose nothing is meant to last forever,” Maier says in her accented English. “We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel—you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

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