Celebrating Vivian Maier, unsung street photographer

CELEBRATING VIVIAN MAIER, UNSUNG STREET PHOTOGRAPHER

By Anne Moore
Crain’s Business Chicago, March 10, 2014

Five years after her death and the discovery of her cache of images in a storage locker, a show of photography by a Chicago nanny will be mounted at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library March 29. A documentary of her life and work, “Finding Vivian Maier,” opens in Chicago April 4.

Ms. Maier, who worked for families on Chicago’s North Shore beginning in the late 1950s, was unusual for the times, carrying a camera with her always. She knew her work was good—she attempted a business arrangement with a French printer. But otherwise, she never sought its publication or display. She didn’t edit or catalogue her work. Indeed, she left thousands of rolls of film unprocessed.

Her photography, curators say, now ranks among the best of the 20th century, compared to that of Lisette Model, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Ms. Maier recorded everything she saw: city streets and their characters, the charming detritus of suburban home life, the historical events of the time.

“She was not shooting for (her photographs to end up in) books or galleries,” says Michael Williams, co-author of “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows,” who wrote the text that accompanies the library show. “She was shooting for herself, documenting her life. She took her camera to the beach, on walks, to the grocery store: It’s an unbroken visual diary.”

What makes her work so extraordinary, Mr. Williams says, is its technical excellence and the sympathetic connection she made, through her lens, with her subjects. That compassionate link is all the more remarkable because by most accounts, Ms. Maier was a difficult person—never married, without children or close friends—who became an angry hoarder and ended her days sitting on a lakefront bench yelling at people in French.

Born in New York in 1926, Ms. Maier lived with her mother in the French Alps as a child, returning to the U.S. at age 25. After working in a factory, she sought employment that would allow her time outdoors. She became a nanny, working for families in New York and then Chicago’s suburbs, beginning in 1956.

There, she documented the everyday life of children and families. At Wilmette’s Gillson Park, she photographed swimmers, readers, sunbathers, toddlers. After dropping her young charges at school, she often went to downtown Chicago, photographing Maxwell Street shoppers and vendors, Loop shoeshine men, street musicians, bums, movie stars, drunks, lovers, children, nuns and Grant Park protesters.

“It is both artistic and accessible,” says Richard Cahan, a former Chicago Sun-Times picture editor, who co-wrote the book with Mr. Williams.

Ms. Maier used different cameras but was most successful with a Rolleiflex, a square-format twin lens reflex that is held at the waist and allows for rapid-action shots. The images are perfectly composed, most everything is in focus and they don’t need to be cropped, Mr. Cahan says. “She knew what she was doing.”

With photography, yes. With life, not so much. Beloved at the start of her career as a nanny, she became mean and abusive, some of the now-grown children she cared for say, wandering away from her charges to take photographs. At one home she filled her bedroom and the family’s porch with stacked newspapers that, when disturbed, sent her into a rage.

JOHN MALOOF DISCOVERS VIVIAN

Unemployable, she lived her last years in a Rogers Park apartment paid for by the children she cared for when she first came to Chicago. Her possessions scattered, she fell behind on storage payments, and her things—including her photographs—were sold at auction. She died in 2009 at age 83.

Enter John Maloof, a historian researching a book about his Portage Park neighborhood. Looking for old Chicago photographs, he paid $380 for a box of negatives auctioned in 2007. Told it was the work of Vivian Maier, he Googled her but found nothing. He stored them in a closet.

Haunted by their edgy beauty and the undocumented person who’d made them, Mr. Maloof Googled her again in 2009 and came upon a paid death notice in the Chicago Tribune. In the obituary, Ms. Maier is described as “a second mother . . . a free and kind spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her.”

Mr. Maloof bought more of Ms. Maier’s boxes, eventually amassing a collection of 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of color film, 2,000 rolls of black-and-white film, and 8-mm and 16-mm films. Overwhelmed, he sought curating help from art museums, but none was interested. Certain her work should be seen by others, he established a website and put images up on Flickr, the photo-sharing site. The world took note.

A 2011 exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer,” curated by Mr. Maloof, broke attendance records. Since then, several books and two documentaries about Ms. Maier have appeared. Her images have been shown in galleries worldwide.

KEEPING A LEGACY ALIVE

Unearthing her story and producing prints for show and for sale have become Mr. Maloof’s life’s work. He’s written two books about her, toured her work and created a documentary. “I became addicted to the story; I had to figure her out,” he says. Over three years, he searched out and filmed interviews with everyone who knew Ms. Maier, which took him to different parts of the U.S. and to France.

That journey informs the 2014 documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Mr. Maloof made with Los Angeles producer and director Charlie Siskel. The two met through comedian Jeff Garlin, who served as the film’s executive producer. It is compelling, charming and deeply moving.

Mr. Maloof wasn’t alone in collecting her work. In 2009, Chicago cabinetmaker Jeffrey Goldstein swapped an IOU for a collection of 57 prints made by Ms. Maier. Mr. Goldstein, who’d been collecting art all his life, was so taken by Ms. Maier’s photographs that he closed his 32-year-old business and invested $100,000 in negatives and prints made by her. “This is a once-in-a-century discovery,” he says. “An artist of global interest.”

He holds about 20,000 of her images and has spent $250,000 to archive them. The Harold Washington Library show consists of 52 images culled from his collection. It also is the source for the 300 images in Mr. Williams and Mr. Cahan’s book. Mr. Goldstein runs a Rogers Park atelier that produces limited-edition prints of Ms. Maier’s work.

Her photographs have traveled the world; New York and France claim her as their own, but it was in Chicago and its suburbs where she spent most of her life and created most of her work. A show in the Loop is necessary and fitting, Mr. Williams says. “She trolled up and down State Street from the 1950s on. This was her stomping ground.”