In pursuit of Vivian Maier, street photographer, nanny and mystery

An intriguing documentary sets out to discover who the acclaimed street photographer and enigma really was

Thu, Jul 17, 2014, 16:55

In 2005 a young real estate agent named John Maloof bought his first home on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Intrigued by the Polish villages and many parks dotted around a residential neighbourhood that stretches as far as O’Hare International Airport, Maloof became heavily involved in community preservation efforts. He went on to co-write Portage Park, a photography-based folk history book.

Hailing from a family of avid antique hunters, Maloof knew to head for a local auction house when illustrations were required. While scavenging, he picked up a box of negatives dating from the 1960s. It was pricey, but he had a good feeling about it.

“It’s hard to know what you have when you’re looking at boxes of hundreds and thousands of negatives,” says Maloof. “With every photographer, most of their work is bad. You put negatives up into the light and you’ll eventually find one good photo accompanied by a lot of bad photos or test photos.”

He saw enough to know those negatives didn’t suit the book, but, having forked out $400 for the lot, he returned to the box once the Portage Park project was completed.

At the time, Maloof had no formal training in photography, but as soon as he started to scan the negatives, he was hooked. “I knew the photographs were good, because as soon as I started looking at them, they inspired me to become a photographer myself. But once I started studying the masters and reading books, I got to realise, wow, this work is better than I thought. So I started buying up the rest of the boxes, even though I couldn’t afford them.”

The photographs had been taken by Vivian Maier, a nanny and amateur street photographer. Over the next year, Maloof would accumulate more than 100,000 negatives, 3,000 prints and random bits of film and audio, representing about 90 per cent of Maier’s work and covering a period from the late 1940s until Maier’s death in 2009.


Emotional connection

Maloof describes an “immediate emotional connection” with Maier’s photography. He wasn’t alone. When he posted a small selection of the work on Flickr, the response was overwhelming.

“I didn’t know how it would hold up,” he says, “but once it went viral and got picked up on by people who know a lot more about photography than I do, by people with a lot of credibility, I knew I had found something really special.”

But with every image, the mystery of Vivian Maier only deepened. Why did one of “the great American mid-century street photographers”, as New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman had it, go entirely unnoticed during her own lifetime? If she had never intended for anyone to see her work, why was there such an extensive back catalogue? And why did someone who was born in New York speak with a French accent? Was she, as was sometimes claimed, a spy?

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