Photographs saved from oblivion

Keeping her reservations, Hayley Ellis Jones is thankful to John Maloof for finding and publicising the body of work of a secretive Chicago nanny

, 7 September 2014

What was Vivian Maier‘s motivation for taking thousands of photographs of people in the streets of Chicago? Why did she never seek a wider audience to see her beautiful images? Who should be profiting from her belated success? These are some of the questions raised, but only partially answered, by the 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, currently screening in selected cinemas.

FVM_VM Self Portrait Round Mirror Repeating Image_©Vivian Maier_Maloof Collection_online.jpg

The film reveals an intriguing tale of a Chicago nanny and prolific street photographer who captured fascinating snaps of daily life but never pursued or received recognition for her work during her lifetime.

In 2009, John Maloof, an expert flea market scavenger, came across a box of Maier’s negatives at a Chicago auction house. Thinking he could use the pictures for a book about Chicago’s history, he purchased the box. As it turned out, none of the pictures were quite right for his book. However, he became increasingly impressed by the work that he was looking at and started to investigate further.

The documentary is more gripping when the narrative shifts from Maloof talking to camera to the direct testimony of those who knew the woman who called herself Maier/Mayer/Meyer

It is perhaps an indictment against our increasing reliance on Google in the digital age, whereby if you have no hits, you don’t exist. For a while, this was a stumbling block for Maloof in finding out more about Maier. Maloof googled Maier, didn’t find any reference to her, let alone a confirmation of her status as an artist, and for a while, that was the end of his quest. A later Google search kicked things off again – Maloof found an obituary and an address and got in contact with some of the children for whom Maier had cared.

Through discussions with former employers, children who Maier looked after, friends and distant relatives, Maloof tells us how he pieced together a partial picture of Maier’s life. The documentary is more gripping when the narrative shifts from Maloof talking to camera to the direct testimony of those who knew the woman who called herself Maier/Mayer/Meyer.

We learn that Maier affected a French accent, although she was not French. She had an odd way of walking. She took her charges on odd excursions – not just out shopping, but to grittier places like an abattoir. Her camera was constantly around her neck but those she worked and lived with had no idea of her talent.

Based on images included in the film, it appears that Maier’s golden age of photography was in the 1950s and 1960s. It is suggested she has a particular talent for photographing children. While there were some excellent pictures of kids shown in the film, Maier’s talent wasn’t limited to this subject. The images included show she captured striking black and white photographs of people around her of all ages, rich and poor, traditionally photogenic and not. She also had an eye for small details: two sets of feet in shoes, a couple holding hands.

FVM_Woman Hat NY Public Library_©Vivian Maier_Maloof Collection_online.jpg

How did she manage to capture these pictures, given we find out that she was not particularly adept at making friends? She was also physically quite a large and unusual woman, with a rigid gait and unconventional clothes: a combination that, complete with a camera, surely made her quite a noticeable figure?

One hint may be that Maier’s used a Rolleiflex camera, which could be held and focused at chest height, rather than directly in front of the face. This probably made it easier for Maier to capture street shots people without their knowledge. The resulting angle of the shots also gave some of her subjects a sense of grandeur, as they were shot from below.

In many ways, the film is a story of two obsessives. Maier, with her thousands of negatives and hoarded newspapers stacked to ceiling height causing the floor to bow, and Maloof, who started the effort to develop, print and categorise Maier’s work. Maloof comes across as driven and borderline obsessive. It is implied that he is the sole custodian of Maier’s images, whereas it has been reported that Maier’s negatives are also held by others.

Maloof is keen for Maier’s talent to be acknowledged, but there is also something in it for him. The more popular Maier’s prints get, the more valuable his collection becomes

Beyond the unanswered questions raised about the shadowy figure of Vivian Maier herself, the film raises a further quandary. How far should a person’s work be publicised after their death if they did not seek publicity in life? Who should profit when an artist becomes famous posthumously?

Maier herself gave no directions in her will as to how her negatives should be treated. She had no children, although she does have remaining distant relatives outside the USA. Maloof tackles some of these questions directly and clearly has a genuine regard for Maier’s artistic abilities. He is keen for Maier’s talent to be acknowledged and for her to form part of major museum archives, but there is also something in it for him. The more popular Maier’s prints get, the more valuable Maloof’s collection becomes. In many ways, the film is part of a larger PR exercise which will benefit him.

Much is made of a letter which Maier wrote but possibly never sent to a French photographic printer, suggesting that she would like her images printed in a certain way. Maloof presents this as evidence that she did have an interest in seeking a wider audience for her work. But comments from those who knew her seem unanimous on the point that she was secretive and some interviewees state that she would be horrified to see her images on public display.

In my view, we are lucky that Maloof has painstakingly printed, archived and publicised Maier’s work. Thanks to Maloof, we now have the opportunity to appreciate some fabulous images that we would never have seen otherwise. It’s not enough for an artist to have talent – in most cases for the art to break through, the artist needs to be adept at publicity or be associated with someone with such a flair. Maloof has done this for Maier and this interesting film brings Maier’s images to an even wider audience, but it feels like there is a lot more to this story which will be revealed over time.

Pictures by Vivian Maier courtesy of Soda Pictures, © Vivian Maier Maloof Collection online.

First picture is black and white self-portrait in front of a round mirror, with the image repeated ad infinitum.

Second picture is black and white portrait of a woman wearing a pearl necklace, standing in front of New York Public Library.

Hayley arrived in London from Australia in 2013 and has learned the difference between trousers and pants or flip-flops and thongs the hard way.

She admires those who can capture a scene without making one. Like Vivian Maier, she snaps the occasional sneaky selfie in the mirror but does not earn a living by taking photos in the street

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