“Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.” (1)
In 2007 John Maloof, a flea-market enthusiast, purchased the contents of a storage locker that contained 20,000 of the 150,000 images that were created over five decades by Vivian Maier; an obscure Chicago nanny . In an age of self promotion and publication it came as a great surprise to Maloof that Maier’s existence appeared unrecorded on the internet. In 2009 he found her death notice in the Chicago Tribune and began to piece together her story and to archive the part of her life’s work that he now owned. (2) And, so just after her death, began the remarkable Vivian Maier posthumous story, a story that is less about Maier and more about the finding of her work as recorded in two documentary films, the publication of several books and the commercialisation of her work by the two men who, at least temporarily, own most of her work (ii); limited edition prints from her previously unprinted negatives are available from $2,200. (3)
Maier was born in New York City in 1926 to a French mother and Austro-Hungarian father and spent her early life in the French Alps. She acquired her first camera in 1949 just before moving back to the USA in 1951, initially to New York and subsequently to Chicago. For the next, nearly 50 years, whilst working as a nanny, she obsessively photographed the world around her. She died in virtual poverty in 2009 without knowing that in the 6 years since Maloof first found the single hit on her name her fame would be such that an equivalent search today records 1,200,000 results.
By some accounts she was not an easy person to relate to, obsessive, secretive, feisty, opinionated, outspoken, irritable, a hoarder, prudish, fiercely independent, hostile to men and, according to some of the children she cared for, not very keen on children or people in general. Joe Matthews, one of her wards, says “I don’t think she liked children much, I think she liked images …….. what she wanted to do was take photos and hauling the kids around was just a chore.”(2)
Yet, others describe her as generous and it is potentially significant that the family who paid the rent on her apartment when she was an older lady and to whom she had been a nanny refused to take part in the John Maloof film that has created the generally accepted picture of her personality. Any study of her photographs suggests that she was a humanist with an empathy for ordinary people and a genuine concern for the wellbeing of the poorest in society. Richard Cahan and Michael Williams in Out of the Shadows (4) describe how she approached the homeless to direct them to night shelters and berated young women for dressing immodestly.
Maier is often described as an enigma and there is no doubt that she was an intensely private person who has left little or no insight to her photography. She probably had difficultly socialising with people in a conventional way, projecting herself as guarded, suspicious and prickly. Revealingly she is known to have described herself as a spy and this is probably the key to her work; her way of connecting with other humans was from behind her camera, she is not the first and will not be the last person to overcome an inability to easily interact with people by looking at life through a viewfinder.
Genius or Commercial Opportunity
Five years after her death, Maier’s work was predominantly owned by two men; John Maloof (6) who still owns some 100,000 negatives and Jeffrey Goldstein (7) who until December 2104 owned a further 18,000 (i). They jointly purchased the copyright from the Maier heir and had full control over her archive until a copyright challenge was launched in September 2014 (ii). Maloof has published two books, Goldstein one, both have provided the source material for film documentaries and both promote a Mary-Poppins-with-a-camera image of the artist.
Pamela Bannos, a senior lecturer in photography at Northwestern (5), argues that this broad-brush, but convenient description is disingenuous; Maier was an accomplished photographer and many of the images she produced in the late 50’s are in the hands of private collectors so it is possible that she was selling her work at that time. At the same auction that started the Vivian Maier story a women acquired four presentation portfolios containing 150 11 x 14 prints that were presumably produced by Maier herself. Bannos also tells us that she was an avid reader who owned many photo books and who was defiantly (iii) at the 1951/2 MOMA exhibition Five French Photographers (8) that showcased Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Ronis and Izis so we know for certain that she was a serious photographer as early as the 1950s and a student of photographic art who took over 150,000 photographs in an age before digital on rolls of 12 negatives.
The net of all these shenanigans is that we know very little about Maier’s motivations and cannot be certain that the self appointed authorities on her work, especially Maloof, are offering a balanced and analytical view of her or her work and whether they are genuinely concerned with the preservation and study of her archive as opposed to extracting the maximum commercial gain from her life’s work. We are also dependent on the selections that Maloof and Goldstein have made public and should recognise that neither of these men are curators nor have any background in art photography.
Perhaps the answers lie in the study of her work and this will only be possible when the full archive becomes accessible to researchers and academics who can offer a balanced and complete view of her art. In the meantime we can look at the tiny proportion of her work that have been published.
Notes on Text
(i) Goldstein sold his collection of 18,000 negatives to a Toronto art dealer. (5) There are at least a further twelve people who own part of the archive.
(ii) This is an evolving story and it is difficult to be certain of the facts at any given time. According to Pamela Bannos’s website the Vivian Maier estate is in the hands of a state appointed Public Administrator. The whole story, that varies significantly from the narrative promoted by Maloof and, to a lesser degree, Goldstein can be found on Pamela Bannos’ website (5)
(iii) A photograph of Salvador Dali taken at the exhibition is known to be in the Maier collection (3)
(4) Cahan, Richard & Williams, Michael ( 2012) Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. Chicago: Cityfiles Press.
(1) Chicago Tribune (2009) Death Notice: Vivian Maier (accessed at the Chicago Tribune 24.4.15) – http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-04-23/news/0904221452_1_photographer-extraordinaire-special-person-critic
(2) Rustin, Susanna (2014) Our nanny, the Photographer Vivian Maier (accessed at the Guardian 24.4.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/19/our-nanny-vivian-maier-photographer
(3) Issacs, Deanna. (2014) Vivian Maier, Cottage Industry. (accessed at Chicago Reader 26.4.14) – http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/nanny-genius-photographer-vivian-maier-is-everywhere/Content?oid=13298357
(5) Bannos, Pamela (2014) Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive. (accessed at Vivian Maier Project 26.4.15) – http://vivianmaierproject.com
(6) Maier, Vivian. John Maloof’s website ( accessed at Vivian Maier 24.4.15) – http://www.vivianmaier.com
(7) Maier, Vivian. Jeffrey Goldsteins’ website (accessed at Vivian Maier Prints 26.4.15) – http://vivianmaierprints.com
(8) MOMA (1951) Press Release for Five French Photographers (accessed at MoMA 26.4.15) – http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/1573/releases/MOMA_1951_0091_1951-12-13_511213-77.pdf?2010)