Vivian Maier: today's top street photographers on her work

Vivian Maier
In October 2009, John Maloof, a 28-year-old estate agent living in Chicago, posted an enquiry on the ‘Hardcore Street Photography’ Flickr page. “I purchased a giant lot of negatives from a small auction house here in Chicago,” he wrote. “It is the work of Vivian Maier, a French-born photographer who recently passed away in April of 2009.

“I have a ton of her work (about 30-40,000 negatives) which ranges in dates from the 1950’s-1970’s. I guess my question is, what do I do with this stuff? Is this type of work worthy of exhibitions, a book? Or do bodies of work like this come up often? Any direction would be great.”

Maloof’s tentative request for information and opinions, with a link to his Vivian Maier website, led to the first significant interest in Vivian Maier’s extraordinary body of work. Within hours, he had hundreds of replies, including offers of book deals, exhibitions and even documentary films. It was the beginning of one of the most intriguing photography stories to emerge in recent years.

Soon the explosion of web interest led to TV and newspaper coverage, then the first exhibitions of Maier’s photographs. Now Vivian Maier’s work has come to the UK and a selection of her vast archive was recently on show at the Photofusion gallery in Brixton, south London.

© Vivian Maier / Maloof Collection
Why is the photographic community so excited about Maier’s work? Brett Jefferson Stott, Director of the London Street Photography Festival and responsible for bringing Vivian Maier’s exhibition to the UK, says the enthusiasm shown for her work is due to its irresistible mixture of the quality of her images and the mystery which surrounds her life.

First, there’s the content of her images. “She possessed a wonderful photographer’s eye and didn't discriminate,” he says. “She focuses on the poor and wealthy in equal measure. She made photos of mink-coated women and the cracked heels of a destitute pensioner - her photographs depict an honest America, warts and all.”

Vivian Maier’s work isn’t just interesting in terms of subject-matter; she was also highly skilled in her use of the camera (most often a Rolleiflex) and her images are technically accomplished. “Maier possessed a deep understanding of composition and lighting,” Stott continues. “I am told her strike rate was quite high. I have the impression that she did not posses the best of people skills yet she commanded an orchestra of intense complexity from behind her camera.

“She interacted with her subjects and this is a defining factor for me in her resulting images. Perhaps because she was a woman and because she took pictures from the waist, she was unthreatening and opened up possibilities beyond her male counterparts.”

Running alongside the appreciation of her work is the puzzling enigma of Vivian Maier herself: a solitary woman who worked as a nanny, who appeared to have no friends and who photographed obsessively but never showed it to anyone; someone who died alone, with little money and her artistic talents completely unrecognised.

“She literally lived her life through her photographs,” says Stott. “You can imagine her thoughts and aspirations through her subjects - the poor people in her pictures reflecting her own background and the rich her employers. Vivian Maier’s work epitomises the essence of Street Photography, in that it celebrates the ordinary as extraordinary and champions the beauty in the everyday.”

Nick Turpin, founder of the In-Public group of Street Photographers, agrees. “The first time I saw the work of Vivian Maier I immediately recognised the work of a fellow Street Photographer,” he says. “She was a quiet ghost wafting along the sidewalk unhurried, unnoticed and unremarkable, pausing just long enough to record a moment of the mundane street and in her own way elevate it into something special and beautiful.

“The work is quiet, composed, simple, beautifully consistent and made with such apparent ease. She undoubtedly had a remarkable talent that is rare to find, which was coupled with a clear, almost compulsive, passion for the medium. Like a typical Street Photographer, Maier didn’t conceptually burden herself; she simply used and celebrated whatever she found.”

How does Vivian Maier compare to the major photographers of her generation who photographed on America’s streets – Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus or Harry Callahan? “I see Vivian as a one-off,” Turpin says. “It’s very difficult to compare her to others of her generation and yet retrospectively she is as significant and as important as the very best of them.”

With the excitement generated amongst fellow photographers, a book being written and a documentary film in production, plus the fact that countless more unseen Vivian Maier images are yet to be revealed, it seems likely that her posthumous fame is only likely to increase.

© Vivian Maier / Maloof Collection
Discovering Vivian Maier: how it all started

In 2005, John Maloof, president of the historical society in northwest Chicago, was working on a book about his local neighbourhood. He needed local pictures to illustrate it and one day in 2006 attended a furniture and antique auction which included items from a storage locker that had been repossessed for non-payment of bills. The elderly female owner, he was told, was ill and living in a nursing home.

One of the items was a box which contained negatives and Maloof recognised some local landmarks in the pictures. Thinking that the box may contain useful architectural images, he took a chance and bought it for $400. Other boxes from the same storage locker were sold to different buyers.

When Maloof began examining the negatives in detail, he found there were disappointingly few images that would be of use in his book and put the box aside. Yet something drew him back to the negatives and he eventually began to scan them.

Although no photography expert, he could see that these images of everyday street scenes and informal portraits, many of them humorous or poignant, were not just any amateur photographer’s work.

In April 2009, after finding the name ‘Vivian Maier’ on a photo-lab envelope in one of the boxes, he typed the name into Google. It came up with one entry, an obituary in the Chicago Tribune for Maier, who had died three days earlier, aged 83. The obituary painted a picture of an interesting, active and fondly-remembered woman. It said:
“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.”

The few clues which this and other obituaries contained later enabled Maloof to gradually piece together at least some of Maier’s life story. At the same time it was enormously disappointing for him not to have met the woman whose work fascinated him.

He gradually bought up other material which had been sold at the original auction. Eventually he became the owner of a large proportion of the Maier archive, comprising between 100,000-150,000 negatives, over 3,000 prints, some home movies and audio tapes, plus personal items including clothing and her collection of photography books.

Up to a third of the negatives he bought were still on the rolls which came out of the camera. Even Maier hadn’t seen them; it seemed that the act of taking the photographs itself was enough for her. The remainder of Maier’s work was bought by collector Jeffrey Goldstein, who owns approximately 15,000 negatives, 1,000 prints and 30 home-made movies.

The sheer size of Maloof’s collection means that at the current rate at which he and his colleagues are scanning negatives, it’s likely to take several years before all Maier’s work is seen.

“There’s so much work I’m doing that sometimes it’s overwhelming to the point that I have anxiety about how much there is to do, and how little I’ve done with all the work I’ve put in,” Maloof said in an interview for US TV show ‘Chicago Tonight’. “Sometimes I have moments when I think, it’s amazing that I’m doing this, that someone like me is doing this.”

© Vivian Maier / Maloof Collection
Vivian Maier: a brief biography

Vivian Maier was born on 1 February, 1926. She was born in New York City, but grew up in France. She began taking photographs with a Box Brownie in 1949. In 1951, aged 25, she returned to America and began working as a nanny in New York. She continued photographing in her spare time and bought a Rolleiflex camera the following year.

In 1956 she moved to Chicago for to work as a nanny to the Gensburg family. Here she made her own darkroom but when she moved on to work for other families, the undeveloped rolls accumulated. Her later work, which continued until the mid-1990s, was mainly shot in 35mm on a Leica IIIc and usually in colour.

She was generally described as an outspoken woman with strong liberal views who liked to keep herself private. As she got older she hoarded large numbers of items including newspaper cuttings and random objects she found in the street. In later years she had a period of homelessness and her health declined significantly after she fell on some ice in 2008.

She died in a Chicago nursing home on 21 April 2009.

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