The mysterious Vivian Maier

There are some artists that rise to fame during their lifetime after someone really important notices their work. There are, also, others, whose work gets unprecedented exposure after their death. But what about the artists next door that continue producing their work day in-day out without any outside recognition or reassurance? Their work goes unnoticed; sometimes they won’t show it to anyone themselves. What happens when your kids’ nanny happens to be an undercover photographer? This is the story of Vivian Maier.

It was October 2009 when John Maloof made a discovery that changed the course of his life but also the history of street photography. He bought one of the few boxes that contained photographs by an unknown photographer called Vivian Maier at an auction in Chicago. There were a lot of developed negatives, but also thousands of rolls of 35mm film. He was impressed by the work he discovered. He searched her name on the Internet. Nothing came up. He rummaged through her stuff that filled some of the boxes he had bought. There was not much that he could learn from all that. Thankfully, she seemed to be a hoarder. He found a lot of checks from the State and other employers with her name on them. Still, that wasn’t enough. Maloof ended up buying most of her work from the buyers that had acquired the rest of the boxes that belonged to the lady.

Maloof was in the process of writing a book about the history of his neighborhood and he was interested in photography. Vivian Maier’s work, though, seemed much more alluring. The only problem was that he did not have the means to support such an extensive and time-consuming project as the digitization of the huge body of work of a mysterious photographer. There was only one thing that was certain about her. She was a nanny. A nanny that took pictures? Or a photographer that had to fund her work through becoming a nanny? It seemed like the latter.  Out of the blue he discovered Maier’s obituary. It was published by two of the kids that she took care of for several years. Maloof got in contact with them, bought all of her remaining stuff that was living in boxes in a storage unit in Chicago and proceeded to look into her more and more. He managed to get her photos in the Art Institute of Chicago and showed her work in an exhibition that was one of the most successful shows at the Institute to date.

Vivian Maier started to get the recognition everyone thought she deserved; she even got her own documentary that was eventually nominated for an Academy Award. But that’s far from what Maier would have felt comfortable with. See, her nature as a photographer was quite introverted. Even though street photography seems like a very social hobby, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A street photographer might be out and about but his/her ultimate goal is to become invisible, to blend in with the crowd. It does not suffice to ask someone for a portrait; you have to undress them in front of the camera, and I don’t mean that literally. You have to gently prob them to relax in front of you in order to get more of their character on the frame.

Maier shot incredible portraits, catching strangers off guard. From African-American middle-aged men to kids playing in the streets to New York’s high society, she left no stone unturned. How did she do it though? It seems at least a bit eccentric to do that while being a nanny. Photographing strangers on the street doesn’t seem to be any kids cup of tea and it certainly wasn’t for the kids that Maier used to take care of. Her photographic adventures would guide them to the most dangerous parts of town, with the kids dragging along beside her or playing on the pavement while she took a portrait. Maier’s technique was unorthodox but it worked. The books that were published with Maloof’s initiative (Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found, Vivian Maier: Street photographer, Vivian Maier: The Color Works and Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits) have been selling all around the world since 2014. Vivian Maier: The Color Works which was published in late 2018 was the latest and most interesting addition out of the bunch.

John Maloof’s discovery was profitable. But he wasn’t the only one that made money off of Vivian Maier’s photos. Jeffrey Goldstein, a Chicago based collector, had bought a portion of Maier’s work as well. Even though both men had acquired the work legally through an auction, they still could not keep the profits of the commercialization of the photos. They had the physical ownership of the work but they did not have the copyright ownership that should have been transferred to them in writing by the photographer herself. Maloof was smart enough to buy the copyright off of one of Maier’s distant relatives. Still, that wasn’t enough to prevent the legal battle that was about to commence over the rights to Vivian Maier’s work.

Maloof, Goldstein and some of Maier’s relatives sought to gain the rights to exploitation, each one for themselves; since Vivian Maier had a very complicated family history and finding who the legal heir was proved complicated, the State of Illinois appointed the Cook County Public Administrator to oversee the estate. Maloof reached an agreement with the court and has been sharing the profits with the State of Illinois, while Goldstein has made the case even more difficult by selling his reproductions to a Canadian collector. The case is still pending. Vivian would have found the whole thing quite amusing for sure. She would have never expected that she would become famous after her death, she would have tried to control her hoarding tendencies. We are grateful that she didn’t. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen anything from her; and that would have been more than unfortunate.

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