In Plain Sight: Vivian Maier

When we talk about street photography, most of us think of names like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus or  Garry Winogrand; these are the iconic names, the photographers you go to when you want to see great examples of that genre of photography. There is another name, however, that is coming up more and more often, which, up until three years ago, was never heard before in the world of photography: Vivian Maier. I remember watching the story of Vivian Maier unfold. I was riveted (and still am) by how the story of her life and work has turned into a worldwide sensation, seemingly overnight. Her photographs have won critical acclaim and are excellent examples of what street photography is all about – the images are honest, have impeccable timing, and the detail, light and composition all work beautifully together to create wholly compelling images. There is no doubt that Maier knew what she was doing; she definitely had a gift. All the more remarkable is the fact that she rarely shared that gift with anyone.

The story of Vivian Maier began to unfold a few years ago when John Maloof, a Chicago real estate agent, bought a box full of negatives at an auction in 2007. He wanted them because he was working on a book about Portage Park (a neighborhood in Chicago) and he noticed these negatives seemed to have various Chicago neighborhoods in them. He was hoping he would be able to use some of them. Although none ended up being usable for his book, what he did find has changed his life. The box turned out to contain over 30,000 negatives. As he started looking through them and scanning some onto his computer, they spoke to him and began to create a portrait of the photographer who took them. He began to get curious. Who was the photographer? Could he find out?

Through a contact at the auction house where he purchased the negatives, he was able to track down a few people who had also purchased similar boxes of negatives which he arranged to purchase from them. He says he wanted to meet her and “ask her advice on photography.” In 2009, John found a name in one of the boxes of negatives: Vivian Maier. Finally, he thought, a name to put the photographs with. He googled the name and only got one hit. Unfortunately, it was an obituary. She had passed away just a few days before. This only piqued Maloof’s curiosity. He contacted several families that Maier had worked for and began to assemble a portrait of the woman and the photographer.

He has since acquired over 100,000 of her negatives and estimates that 20-30,000 negatives, taken during the 1960’s-1970’s are still undeveloped. Thanks to one of Maier’s former employers, Maloof has also acquired personal affects, including her twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, some clothing, and newspaper clippings which belonged to her; all in a quest to find out who Vivian Maier was. Through months of scanning negatives, processing film, interviews with people who knew her, and the limited papers he was able to find; we now have a sketchy image of the photographer behind these images.

Maier was born in New York in 1926, but spent most of her growing-up years in France. She moved back to the states in 1951, spending five years in New York and then finally to Chicago. She worked as a nanny during those years, basically because she didn’t know how to do anything else. It was on her days off where she would go out alone, with her camera in hand. Although she worked with several families over the years, it was really only one family who felt close to her. While the others said she was brash, ill-mannered, and aloof; the Gensburgs thought of her as Mary Poppins, taking them on adventures outside of their own suburbs. They were the ones who let her convert a bathroom into a darkroom. In the end it was the adult Gensburg children who supported her and cared for her.

Although it seemed every spare moment was spent wandering the streets and shooting (whether in her own Chicago neighborhoods or her travels around the world), these photographs never really saw the light of day. The Gensburgs said they did see some of them, but they were never given away. “If you wanted a picture,” Nancy (the daughter of the family) said, “you had to buy it. Someone had to want it more than she wanted it. It’s like an artist who would paint something and then hate to get rid of it. She loved everything she did.”

Part of Maloof’s investigation of Maier involved posting some of her work on a street photography blog asking for advice on how to proceed. He knew this was important work that should be shared, but wanted to do it the right way. The thread on Flickr went viral. People from all over the world chimed in and soon he had exhibition as well as film offers. The first exhibition was in 2010 in Norway. Since then there have been exhibitions held all over the world, including Germany, London, and New York. Maloof and his partner, Anthony Rydzon, started a Kickstarter project last year to fund a documentary about Vivian Maier’s life which quickly met its goal and they are now in production. Late last year, Maloof also published a book of Maier’s work (Vivian Maier: Street Photographer). Needless to say, finding this box of negatives has steered Maloof’s life in a completely different direction, but it also brought an amazing artist out of the shadows.

While Maloof has gone through thousands of images, he has actually only seen about ten percent of the entire collection, with boxes and boxes still waiting to be seen. He estimates it will take several years to scan and catalog all of her work. Jeffery and I got a chance to go see some of her work in person earlier this year at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles and we were both struck by the beauty and simplicity of it. Her photographs are an honest portrayal of people on the street. She didn’t care who was looking or what the reaction was. In some of her shots, there are subjects who almost seem to be glaring at her; in others, people are completely oblivious to the woman with the camera. When you see her photographs, you know she was not trying to please anyone. These photographs were solely for her, whether for her amusement or enjoyment. There isn’t a frenzied, rushed look about them. They were shot by someone who was taking their time and enjoying the process. This was a woman passionate about photography.

Some critics say her work is just average; that there are a few standouts, but, for the most part, it doesn’t pass the test of some of the “masters”. It needs to be kept in mind, however, that we are looking at a complete and unedited body of work. This does not usually happen. Even Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson had mediocre work that no one saw. Maier did not have the opportunity to choose the images she wanted to be seen. There are very few photographers who could have their entire portfolio exhibited and come through as a master.

Vivian Maier kept her life and her photography private. She was an elusive person both in life and in death and we may never fully understand why she hid herself and her talent from the rest of the world, but she did. However, thanks to a chance auction in Chicago, and the amazing efforts of John Maloof, both her life and her work are now on display for us to enjoy.

View images by Vivian Maier on Pinterest

 The Vivian Maier Story

Books We Recommend

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows
Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

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