Vivian Maier was a Chicago nanny and a photographer who took pictures in obscurity before her death. Now, thanks to a real estate agent’s find at an auction, the world is seeing her work.
Perusing them, he found nothing useful for the book, but he was intrigued by the images. Sifting through the box, he discovered an envelope with a name on it — Vivian Maier. He asked the auction house for her contact information but was told she was ill, so he didn’t try to contact her.
Instead, Maloof purchased a Rolleiflex, the same camera she’d used, and started snapping away, trying to imitate her style. “The more I got into it, the more I started thinking maybe her photographs were better than I thought,” he told the Star in an interview. “It was a gradual process. I knew I liked her work, but would anyone else?”
He got his answer when he posted some of her photographs on a photo-sharing website and was inundated with positive responses. His curiosity mounting, in 2009 he Googled her, only to find her obituary online. She’d died several days before he began his search.
It was then that Maloof decided to do two things: The first was to learn more about Maier, and the second was to show her photographs to the world.
Maloof had modest success with the former goal, discovering that Maier had worked off and on as a nanny for four decades and taken the photos in her spare time.
As for the latter goal, about 80 of Maier’s pictures are currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center in a show that runs until April 3. And galleries around the world have asked to exhibit her work. Maloof is now working on a documentary about Maier, and a book on her is to be released by the publisher powerHouse in the fall.
All this for someone who took her pictures in obscurity.
Through interviews with former employers and their children, Maloof learned that Maier, born in 1926, had spent her childhood in New York and France before returning to New York at the age of 11 or 12 to work in a sweatshop.
She went on to earn a living as a nanny from the mid-1950s to the 1990s in Chicago’s North Shore. On her days off she roamed the streets, taking pictures that she didn’t show to anyone.
On his blog devoted to Maier and her work, Maloof describes her as a socialist, feminist, movie critic and “tell-it-like-it-is” person. He notes that she was a loner who “wore a men’s jacket, men’s shoes and a large hat most of the time.”
“Her life was extremely fascinating, interesting and mysterious,” he told the Star. “She took pictures of life on the margins. She was interested in fashion and children, but I think she just took pictures of what she thought was interesting.”
Through his research, Maloof discovered that Maier travelled to countries including Egypt, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Italy and Indonesia in 1959, and that she did so alone. At some point she also travelled to Canada and took photos here, though it’s unclear which places she visited.
As Maloof spent days and nights scanning photographs and interviewing previous employers to learn more about Maier, he found his life becoming inextricably entwined with hers — as if he were channelling her work from the grave. “I’m not superstitious,” he says, “but it was a little strange that I was obsessing over this dead woman’s work. I was a bit embarrassed to talk about it.”
He has since taken down his real estate shingle so he can deal with the growing fascination with Maier.
A little over a year ago, Maloof took a number of prints he’d made from the negatives to the Chicago Cultural Center. Chief curator Lanny Silverman recalls that Maloof simply walked in off the street with the photos. “We were a little concerned with the story because she was obviously a hoarder, and the story had an antique road show feel to it, but then there were the photos. When we looked at it in committee, the photos won everybody over.”
Silverman says it’s obvious from the images that Maier was familiar with a number of different genres of photography, although she didn’t confine herself to any one style. In fact, after her death a number of photography books were also discovered with her belongings, all of which had been in a storage locker but were sold to the auction company because rental payments hadn’t been kept up.
Silverman has high praise for Maier’s work in the “street photography” genre. “There are about 15 photographs I would hold up with the best in the history of street photographers.”
While he doesn’t want to read too much into her personality from Maier’s pictures, Silverman concedes that they are telling. “She seemed to be fascinated with feet and shoes, but perhaps the choice of camera which had a viewfinder and had her looking down may have been responsible for that. She had a sense of humour where she seemed to have gags within the photos. She also had a sense of poetry. There’s a photograph of a broken doll in a backyard. If a photograph could be a poem that would be it.”
Though she was apparently a recluse, Maloof says Maier was no shrinking violet. “What I’ve learned from speaking to people was that she was such a strong person, if she wanted to take your picture she would walk right up to you and take your picture. She was so determined that if one of the kids she nannied was late for school, she would demand a ride from a milkman with her standing on the back of the truck.”
Why, then, did she not try to publish her photographs or even develop them? Silverman says she might not have developed the negatives for financial reasons, though he notes she did live with one family that allowed her to use a darkroom. Whether Maier would have met success back then is anyone’s guess, he adds: not many women were photographers, and it’s difficult to say what type of reception she would have received from a gallery.
Some of her most fascinating photos are ones in which a face is obscured — perhaps by a balloon — which makes the images more mysterious. Indeed, she seemed to understand the power of the elusive.
And now that power, along with her artistry behind the lens and the tenacity of John Maloof, is lifting Vivian Maier from obscurity and giving her images the exposure they deserve.