Vivian Maier, Chicago’s Mysterious Photographer – A Timeline
1950′s, New York
A tall woman wearing a wide brim hat walks inconspicuously down a busy street. She stops by two ladies chatting on the pavement, briefly looks down, then keeps walking. She has something hanging from her neck; it’s a camera that takes photos from waist level. She cranks a lever with her right hand as she leaves the ladies behind, their chatter engulfed by the sounds of the city. She observes, immutable, taking it all in, pausing only briefly to take a shot. Nobody notices her, and she seems happy with that.
Every now and again she encounters a child. Her expression changes, she takes a knee, speaks some kind words; the children are fascinated with her and never realise their photo is being taken. She bids them farewell and they stare after her as she disappears into the crowd. They will never know it, but this lady was Vivian Maier.
A quiet woman travels alone around the World, visiting The Philippines, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Egypt, France, Italy, and the American Southwest. Her only companion is a camera.
Different city, different people, but the opportunities are still there for a good photograph and Vivian walks the streets as often as she can. The Chicagoans have as little interest in her as the New Yorkers did. That suits her just fine.
It’s late afternoon and the sun is casting long shadows; Vivian rides the bus back to the North Shore. As she enters her home 3 little boys (John, Lane, and Matthew) come running, asking myriad questions about how their nanny spent her day. She embraces them, calming them down with soft, yet imposing words, spoken with a slight French accent. In short order the children are put to bed and Vivian retires to her room, which nobody is allowed to go in to.
When the children’s parents walk past her door shortly after they wonder about the faint chemical smell hanging in the corridor.
John, Lane, and Matthew are now grown men, successful in their personal lives and far from needing a nanny. Yet they never forgot their own personal Mary Poppins, who looked after them and taught them so much about life and the world during the 16 years she was with their family. So when they find out she is practically destitute, they buy an apartment for her and make sure she is taken care of. It seems she is still taking photos.
John Maloof, a real estate agent preparing a book about his neighbourhood, Portage Park, is searching for old photos amongst the boxes being auctioned at RPN Auction House. He finds one with negatives showing Chicago and bids $400. He wins.
Back at home he quickly goes through the contents of the box but finds no photos of Portage Park and stores the box away.
A few months later he brings the box out and spends some time looking through the photos—he’s captivated by them. He knows nothing about Photography nor is he an artist, yet these images speak to him and he can’t stop thinking about them.
A friend of his brother, a flea market professional called Ron Slaterry, was also at the auction and had bought some other boxes belonging to the same person, as had one Randy Prow.
It’s not clear when or who discovered the name of the woman who took these photos, but John and Ron learn the mysterious photographer is called Vivian Maier. After contacting the auction house they learn she is ill but find out nothing more about her. They discuss what to do about her photos while they slowly start to scan negatives and develop film rolls.
At some point Ron finds himself in need of cash to pay medical bills and, seeing how John is so interested in (even obsessed with) Vivian Maier’s work, he sells him his part of the collection for $1 a roll. Now John has some 100,000 negatives.
April 21st 2009, Chicago
Undiscovered street photographer Vivian Maier dies at the Oak Park nursing home in the Chicago suburbs.
A few days later John Maloof Googles her name and finds her obituary. A bit of sleuthing leads him to some of the families she worked for, who gift him some of her possessions, including hats, books and cameras. They also share with him their memories of Vivian. John learns she was born in New York on February 1st 1926; she was 83 years old when she died.
May 2009, Chicago
John Maloof sets up a blog where he starts posting the most interesting photos he finds as he scans in negatives.
October 2009, Chicago
John Maloof posts a question on the Hardcore Street Photography group on Flickr regarding Vivian’s photos and receives an overwhelmingly positive response to her photos and his efforts to recover and bring her to public attention. He contacts museums, curators, galleries and newspapers, receiving mixed messages about Vivian’s work and its worth, both artistic and monetary.
Spring 2010, Chicago
Jeffrey Goldstein, a frequenter of the Chicago flea markets, has John Maloof pointed out to him as the finder of Vivian Maier’s photography collection. After talking to him he learns about Ron Slaterry and the other buyer. Soon he tracks down Randy Prow, the third buyer of Vivian’s boxes at the auction house. He purchases 12,000 negatives, 700 prints and 20 homemade movies from him and sets up a website to publicise the find. Amongst the street photos typical of Vivian’s style he finds pictures of celebrities such as US president Nixon or Spanish painter Dalí.
April 2010, Boston
Miserere is surfing the internet in some semi-chaotic fashion, much like a squirrel jumping from tree to tree with no apparent direction. He stumbles upon John Maloof’s blog dedicated to Vivian’s photos and is immediately enthralled. He spends an hour pouring through the entries and searching the net for more information, all the while muttering under his breath this Vivian lady was good, dammit—she was good.
He soon finds John Maloof’s e-mail address and writes requesting an interview and a chance to meet in person, as he has a trip planned to Chicago in May. Unfortunately, John is unavailable to meet, and cannot grant an interview because several TV stations are working on stories about Vivian Maier and want exclusivity.
January 2011, Chicago
Vivian Maier has her first major show in the US (she already had one in Denmark and Norway) at the Chicago Cultural Center; Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer displays 72 inkjet prints from John Maloof’s collection (also printed by him) until April 3rd 2011, and admission is free!
John Maloof faces a daunting task as he pushes on with limited personal funds to finish scanning the remaining 90,000 images, not to mention the 1,000 rolls of unprocessed film (which assuming 12 shots per roll totals a further 12,000 images). Jeff Goldstein may own a smaller part of the collection, but 12,000 negatives is still a huge number to scan. By these accounts, the total number of photos taken by Vivian is about 125,000; If no financial and technical help is afforded these men, it will be decades before Vivian’s full collection is scanned, after which it still needs to be edited. John estimates that 1 in 100 images is artistically good, which means some 1,250 would be worthy of including in books. Even at a generous 200 images per book, this would still require 6 volumes. Needless to say, Monsieurs Maloof and Goldstein have their work cut out for them.
If you wish to help the Vivian Maier cause, visit her KickStarter page and make a donation. John Maloof has teamed up with Chicago film maker Anthony Rydzon and Dansih documentary film maker Lars Mortensen and is raising funds to make a documentary about Vivian Maier and her work. Some say they would rather see funds funnelled into helping her archive get digitised, but I think a documentary, and an upcoming book by Powerhouse Books, will raise awareness and give Vivian the credit she deserves, at which point it will be easier to obtain means and funds to finish archiving her photographic collection. Enticing the Light has made its donation, and we hope you will too. [Ed. note: Happily, their funding goal has been reached, but any extra funds can only help, so don't let it keep you from donating.]
More Vivian Maier
- John Maloof’s page: VivianMaier.com
- Jeff Goldstein’s page: VivianMaierPhotography.com
- Vivian Maier’s Facebook page
- Chicago Magazine: The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier, by Nora O’Donnell
- Chicago Magazine: Vivian Maier Photos
- The Independent: Little miss big shot: Fifties America exposed – by a French nanny
- The Independent: Vivian Maier Photos
- Chicago Sun-Times: A developing picture: The story of Vivian Maier, by Mary Houlihan
- Chicagoist: Behind the Images: Jeff Goldstein Talks about Vivian Maier, by Kevin Robinson
- The Lens: New Street Photography, 60 Years Old, by David W. Dunlap
- Gaper’s Block: Getting the Right Angle on Vivian Maier, by Kelly Reaves
- Vivian Maier on Wikipedia
All photos: Property of John Maloof; except Dalí, property of Jeff Goldstein
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Tags: Chicago, John Maloof, Mystery, Photographers, Photography, Street Photography, Vivian Maier