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How a quirk of fate unravelled one of the world's greatest photography mysteries. The Vivian Maier story

Vivian Maier self portrait

Vivian Maier self-portrait

Image: Vivian Maier/ John Maloof Collection

It has all the elements of a great detective story and a Greek tragedy. The story of a reclusive nanny who died impoverished, eccentric and unknown but who is now being compared to some of the greatest street photographers of all time.

Vivian Dorothea Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer. She was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in France.

After returning to the United States, she worked for about 40 years, mostly as a nanny in Chicago. During that time, armed with a twin lens Rolleiflex camera, constantly strung around her neck, she took more than 150,000 photographs, mostly of people and architecture of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. She also travelled and photographed worldwide in 1959 and 1960 on a round the world trip likely financed by the sale of a family farm in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur.

Maier was a deeply private person who made no effort to get her vast body of work seen, although she went to great lengths to preserve it. It was almost as though she was obsessed with documenting her own world and determined to keep it private. She carried her life around with her in suitcases and boxes and grew angry when anyone tampered with her possessions.

Quirk of fate

Vivian Maier would likely have remained unknown, her work tossed out and destroyed as old junk, had it not been for a quirk of fate.

Maier grew poorer with old age and fell on hard times and was evicted from a cheap apartment towards the end of her life. (A former employer came to her rescue.) 

In 2007, two years before her death, Maier failed to keep up payments on storage space she rented in Chicago. As a result, the storage-locker was opened and the contents put on auction. Her prints, negatives, audio recordings that she'd made as well as 8mm films she shot, were bought by three photo collectors, John Maloof, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow. 

A year later Slattery published the photos he'd bought on the Internet but they attracted ought little attention or response.

John Maloof, a real-estate agent with an interest in photography, bought a box of negatives for $400 that he hoped contained historic images of the city. He planned to use them in a history book about the Chicago neighbourhood of Portage Park that he was researching at the time.

The auction house gave Maloof, Maier's name but could tell him nothing more about her.

When Maloof started scanning the images he realized he'd stumbled upon something extraordinary. But he knew nothing about the photographer. A Google search turned up Maier's death notice in the Chicago Tribune in April 2009.

In November 2008, Maier had slipped on ice and hit her head. She was taken to hospital but failed to recover. In January 2009, she was moved to a nursing home in Highland Park, where she died on April 21, 2009.

Viral

In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier's photographs on Flickr, and the results went "viral", with thousands of people expressing interest. (Her prints now sell for around $5000!) It was to be the start of an all-consuming obsession for John Maloof. He set out on a quest to find and buy Maier's work and now owns around 150 000 negatives, more than 3 000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews and items including cameras and paperwork. His collection is believed to be around 90% of her known work.

Chicago art collector, Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a portion of the Maier collection from Prow, one of the original buyers, and his collection has since grown to include 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides.

Vivian Maier has achieved - albeit posthumously - what she seemed to most want to avoid in life - fame.

Movie

 A documentary movie titled Finding Vivian Maier was released in mainstream and art movie-houses in the US and UK early in 2014 and in July the film was released for home purchase on DVD.

Highly acclaimed by critics, it is a tantalising and fascinating film that never quite explains the enigma that was Vivian Maier. In spite of interviews with children (now grown up) that she cared for during her 40 years as a nanny, housekeeper and caretaker with various well-heeled families, she still remains a mystery.

The kids she cared for have mixed memories of her, some recall her as being aloof and even abusive. At one point she was the nanny of US talk-show host, Phil Donahue, who remembers she once took a photograph inside a garbage can. There is also a story of how a child under her care was knocked down and injured by a motorcar and that her first reaction was to shoot his picture while he lay on the ground, before tending to him.

What all recall is being dragged to all parts of the city - including some of the less savoury districts - while Maier shot pictures with her Rolleiflex. She had a genius for composition and a knack for engaging with and relaxing her subjects, whether they were bums on skid-row or well-to-do shoppers. But she also took photographs secretly as her Rolleiflex allowed her avoid eye-contact. It required she look down in order to focus and take the picture.

Dianne Arbus

Maier's work has been compared to that of Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, and Weegee, as well as Robert Frank and Dianne Arbus and, but for a twist of fate, the Mary Poppins of Photography might have slipped unknown and lost into obscurity and humanity would have been the poorer.

  

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