People who frequent thrift stores, junk shops, yard sales, and auctions often dream of coming across an undiscovered work by a famous artist. In 2007, it happened—sort of—to Chicago real estate agent John Maloof when he purchased an archive of nearly 40,000 photos, negatives, and rolls of film at an auction. What he found was far more interesting and exciting than a little-known piece by a master; it was the entire catalog of the work of Vivian Maier, a French-born nanny who took photographs on the streets of Chicago and New York City, mostly in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Maloof began the arduous task of processing the film and sharing Maier’s remarkable work via a blog and a few other projects now in the works. He was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about his discovery.
First of all, how did you come into possession of Maier’s work?
I purchased her work at a furniture and junk auction while working on a book about Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood.
Does it blow your mind to think that if you’d not bought these negatives, all this work might very well have ended up in a dumpster?
To be honest, I’m sure this happens all the time. In the resale business, many people don’t find a value in negatives so they are tossed out. But, I don’t think her work would have ended up in a dumpster. The auction house purchased her delinquent storage locker and decided that the negatives may have value. [If] I didn’t buy them, though, they may have just sat in the dark forever.
Are you processing all the undeveloped rolls yourself?
I was for some time. I have them developed in a small lab now due to lack of time.
So, when you first started going through the collection, was there a certain moment, or a specific photograph, that made you realize you’d found something remarkable?
I’m not sure. I was emotionally attached to the work since it inspired me to become a photographer. I wasn’t a photographer before I found Vivian. But, there wasn’t one photo that made me realize that this was something special. It was when I started to learn more about photography that I began to realize that her work is great.
Do you think poring through her archives has influenced your photography beyond that as well?
She taught me to walk slower, pay more attention to detail, don’t shoot out of haste, wait for the right moment to come, etc. I still shoot with the same camera she used, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, with black and white film.
Why do you think Maier’s work strikes people so deeply? Everyone I know who has seen these photographs—from seasoned photographers to those who know nothing about art–has been bowled over by them.
I can’t speak for everyone but I think Maier’s images are very intimate. There are some images where it looks like all is quiet and she slowly walks up to her subject and captures a still moment that many people can relate to. Whether it be people asleep in a car, children sitting on a stoop, women window shopping, etc. For many of her images I don’t think she was a “decisive moment” type of photographer. Rather, it seems more like she was an “intimate moment” photographer.
I noticed that Vivian makes a lot of use of horizontal lines and shadows. I also saw a lot of dogs, and people napping in public! Since we’ve only seen a fraction of the available photos, are there other recurring images or themes in her work?
Vivian has many styles. Some of the more consistent themes are of children and older women. It seems that she had a soft spot for children since she was a woman and also a nanny for much of her life.
Tell us about the Vivian Maier book you’re working on.
PowerHouse Books had agreed to publish a book on Vivian’s work. Right now, it is in the making. It’s expected to be released by the first half of next year. Hopefully your viewers will enjoy it.
Will you also be exhibiting the work?
Her next exhibition will be at the Chicago Cultural Center in early 2011. I hope for other exhibitions to follow.