Street View: The Discovered Work of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for over 40 years, beginning in the 1950s. But her life’s work, it seems, was quietly dedicated on her days off to photographing human movement as it unfolded on the streets of New York and Chicago.

A fiercely private woman, she wandered the streets in over-sized hats, baggy overcoats and men’s shoes with her Rolleiflex in hand. She kept her documentation largely hidden from view in over two hundred boxes:100,000 negatives, tens of thousands of undeveloped rolls of film, numerous slides, audiotapes, and far fewer prints.

While those boxes traveled with her from home to home, their contents were known to few people. That is, until they ended up in a repossessed storage locker and auctioned towards the end of her life. Since her death in April, 2009, details of Vivian Maier’s enigmatic life are gradually unfolding. And slowly, painstakingly, her once obscure negatives are being scanned, printed, and brought into public view by those who discovered them serendipitously at auction.

Well known as a collector and seller of vernacular photos in Chicago’s flea market circuit, Ron Slattery acquired a sizeable collection in 2007, of Vivian Maier’s slides, prints, home movies and negatives through two auctions at RPN, a local auction house. Knowing nothing more than her name—written on the boxed lot he’d purchased—and keen to generate leads, Slattery printed and posted a number of Maier’s colour photos on his blog in 2008. But the trail, it seemed, was cold.

Enter John Maloof, a then 27-year old real estate agent, who had attended the second auction, paying $400.00 in an absentee bid for a box of 30,000 negatives. Maloof was in search of historical photos for a book he was writing on Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. The Maier negatives didn’t offer him any material, however, and the box was tucked away. Eventually, curiosity lured Maloof back to it, and as he began to scan negatives, he was astonished by what he discovered.

The unfolding of the Vivian Maier mystery then began in earnest. Maloof tracked down other buyers, struck up an on-going email correspondence with Ron Slattery regarding Vivian Maier, and ultimately purchased some of Slattery’s collection. Slattery also sold prints to Chicago artist Jeff Goldstein, who now owns 12,000 negatives and 700 prints, chronicling some of that work on his blog. As Maloof’s collection grew, so did his attachment to Vivian Maier, and his need to piece together the details of her life.

In early 2009, Maloof created a blog dedicated to the mysterious photographer whose work he stumbled upon. In an attempt to broaden the conversation about Maier, he linked his blog to the Flickr group Hardcore Street Photography. John Maloof’s journey eventually led him to a number of families who had employed Vivian Maier. Those conversations provided him with a richness of detail about her life, and in the absence of any family of her own stepping forth, John Maloof was given a staggering amount of her personal possessions, becoming caretaker to many of her cameras, steamer trunks filled with clothing and memorabilia, and suitcases. Three tall, fire-proof file cabinets now hold roughly 100,000 negatives, 3,000 prints, and  2,000 rolls of film—a massive archival challenge for Maloof, if ever there was one.

He’s since teamed with friend Anthony Rydzon to co-direct a feature-length documentary: Finding Vivian Maier, and spearheaded the first North American exhibit of her work entitled “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer” at the Chicago Cultural Centre (Jan 8, 2011-April 3, 2011.)

Vivian Maier remained unmarried and childless, an outspoken adventurer, a staunch explorer of the world at her finger tips, and a solo traveler beyond those margins: Los Angeles, the American Southwest, Italy, Asia, The Philippines, and Egypt. She created a candid portrait of a city and its people, immersing herself in the poignant, often humorous quality captured in the faces of her un-named subjects. There’s an intimacy found in her images, and at the same time, a sense of dignity and respectable distance. She strongly identified with the process of capturing fleeting moments on film, perhaps more so than the resulting images; curiously, the overwhelming majority of her work was never printed, or viewed by Maier herself. The very moment itself, was the photograph for Maier.

Uncovering the mystery surrounding the life of Vivian Maier, born in New York in 1926, and raised in France, is undoubtedly an exhilarating and important achievement on John Maloof’s part. But perhaps the greatest truths are to be found in the photos themselves.

{photos from the collection of john maloof}

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