UPDATED: Vivian Maier and All Those Other Undiscovered Photographers





The story of Vivian Maier and her recently discovered work has been circulating for a few days now ever since photographer John Maloof posted about his discovery over at HCSP.  Paul Russell and K. Praslowiscz have written up nice posts about the discovery.  Of course, it’s one of those feel good stories for all photographers, but what instantly came to my mind while I was looking through the work was, how many more Vivian Maier’s are out there?

Another question that came to my mind was the role the internet plays in these type of discoveries.  Without the internet, this work likely wouldn’t find much of an audience.  It’s another way the web is changing photography.  There’s no doubt that a discovery will be made that will likely send shock waves through the photography world. What if someone of Eggleston’s caliber has been out there for years photographing but not showing anyone?  Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe the web has made everyone too jaded and we’ll just give these discoveries a week of blogging and buzz before we move onto the next thing. I hope not.

I’ve no doubt there are countless other artists are out there because I know photographers.  They tend to be a bit introverted and shy about their work.  It’s much easier to stuff the negatives and prints under the bed than making an effort to show them to people who will understand.

It’s a great time to be a photography fan. I can’t wait until the next Vivian Maier comes around, but I do feel sorry for poor John Maloof who has in one purchase, literally doubled the amount of scanning and editing he needs to do.

Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work


Robert Bergman is another example.

‘The Man Who Waited’ [WSJ]
Robert Bergman WITH JOHN YAU

More on Vivian Maier

The other X factor in recognition is a curatorial champion. Bellocq had Friedlander. Atget had Abbot. Disfarmer had Miller. Without their discoverers, these photographers might still be anonymous. For Maier it’s been John Maloof. An interesting mental experiment is to wonder what would’ve happened had Maier posted her own photos on a blog while still alive. Would they have the same impact? Or would they just be another series of old images from some self-promoting has-been? Surely some of the intrigue in the situation and the interest in her photos comes from the storybook quality of their discovery. Such cases seemingly need an outside agent, someone aside from the photographer to direct society’s attention. These folks are the historical gatekeepers. - Blake Andrews – The Flame of Recognition

A French Catholic, Maier had apparently arrived in New York as a young girl in the 1930s, where she had earned her keep in sweatshops and learnt English at the theatre. Eventually, she found herself in Chicago nannying three boys. “She had a peculiar personality,” Maloof was told. “They told ‘ me she would bring home a dead snake to show them, or convince the millkman to drive them all to school in his delivery truck. They loved her.” She had no family that anyone knew of, never, so it’s said, taking a single personal call at the house she worked in for a decade. “She wore big hats and coats, and men’s shoes, and thought of herself as a film critic.” Her camera was around her neck constantly. As the children grew up, Maier moved on to nanny other families. But by the 1990s, she was homeless, and fortunate that the three boys she had originally looked after were able to return the favour, buying her an apartment and paying her bills until she died. - Little miss big shot: Fifties America exposed – by a French nanny [The Independent]

In the spring of 2010, this buyer surfaced; we met, and I was able to acquire from him his portion of the Vivian Maier assemblage. My collection now includes 12,000 negatives, 700 prints, 20 homemade movies and numerous slides. They document Vivian’s European years prior to her early 1950s stay in New York, continuing through her Chicago years from 1955 into the early 1970s. Through the site,vivianmaierphotography.com and this blog, I intend to share my portion of Vivian Maier’s photographs and homemade movies.

There’s no doubt that Maier was deeply engaged with the visual culture of her time. Photography was moving away from the humanist traditions of the ’30s and ’40s and haltingly embracing the less literal and darker visions of, say, Robert Frank, Roy DeCarava, and William Klein. Maier shared this sensibility and must have seen this work. – Vivian Maier, Photographer: More Than Just A Good Story (A Lot More) [John Edwin Mason]

But to me the story of Vivian Maier isn’t that her work was lost and rediscovered. It’s the work itself that matters. Her photographs are among the most vibrant street shots ever made. I’m not sure which photos Westerbeck has already seen, but I suggest he devote some more hours to looking through Maier’s archives. The quality and consistency of vision will prove impossible to miss. – Thoughts on Maier [Blake Andrews]

Colin Westerbeck, the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s leading experts on street photography, thinks Maier is an interesting case. He inspected her work after Maloof e-mailed him. “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.” Westerbeck explains that Maier’s work lacks the level of irony and wit of some of her Chicago contemporaries, such as Harry Callahan or Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and unlike them, she herself is often a participant in the shot. The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, know how to create a distance from their subjects. – The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier [Chicago Magazine]

“First thing in the morning on her day off, the camera would be around her neck, and we wouldn’t see her again until late at night,” said Maren Baylaender, whose husband employed Maier to care for his disabled daughter. “I remember her as a private person but one who had very strong opinions about movies and politics.” – A developing picture: The story of Vivian Maier [Chicago Sun Times]

As for what Vivian Maier might think of all this interest in her work, Goldstein is sanguine. “If she really wanted no one to ever see this she would have destroyed it. I don’t know if she ever thought out what to do with it. In some sense, it’s of such an unmanageable volume.” Noting the impact that her work has had in bringing photography back to the forefront, “I think if she realized that her work was of that caliber, I think she would be for it. Whether or not she had to be present for that, I think she would be totally indifferent. I think she would be totally surprised” that so many people are so excited about her work. “She went through such a mechanical process of shooting, to keep herself connected, it’s really more about documenting her own life, there’s such a privateness to this, I think she would find it unbelievable that other people have taken such a strong interest in her work. She didn’t seem to be real interested in the end product of photography, which is the prints. She seemed more interested in the mechanical process, somehow connecting or attaching herself to what she was seeing through the lens.” – Behind the Images: Jeff Goldstein Talks About Vivian Maier [Chicagoist]

“I sold those rolls to John at such a cheap price because he was a friend. He seemed genuinely interested in Vivian’s work. I called Nick from Squareamerica.com and asked his advice. We both realized that I didn’t have the resources to develop the work and getting healthy was more important. … There was a reason I did it. He was a friend. Also, I developed some of the rolls of film. Well before I gifted them to John. I still have those first proof sheets and negatives. I sold them to John because I was helping a friend with a project.” – Getting the Right Angle on Vivian Maier [Gapers Block]

Vivian Maier, evidently one of America’s more insightful street photographers, has at last been discovered. The release of every fresh image on the Web causes a sensation among the growing legion of her admirers. (Frankly, Lens is late to the table.) Ms. Maier’s streetscapes manage simultaneously to capture a redolent sense of place and the paradoxical moments that give the city its jazz, while elevating and dignifying the people in her frames — vulnerable, noble, defeated, proud, fragile, tender and often quite funny. Harry Callahan is just one of the masters with whom Ms. Maier is already being compared. – New Street Photography, 60 Years Old [NYTimes Lens Blog]

Who was this woman? Was she a warm Mary Poppins figure or cold and aloofish? Was she a hoarder who collected moments on rolls of film, or was she just so prolific that there was never enough time? What propelled this New York City native to immerse herself in what appeared to be, at times, the mean streets of Chicago? How did she have such access to cultural elites such as Nelson Algren, Christian Dior and Salvador Dali, as evidenced by some of her occasional photographs? These questions will perhaps find better answers in the future, as her biography gets further clarified. In the meantime her work and its legacy will and should dominate discussions. – Vivian Maier – Chicago Street Photographer [Chicago Tribune]

I have good reason to believe she began taking pictures in about 1949. Negatives from this year and even a year later have a beginner look to them. They are either over or under-exposed, out of focus, clumsy compositions, etc. But by the time she came back to New York from France in 1951, she had a good sense of her own interests and curiosities as a photographer. From 1951 to the mid-1970′s, her work was solid with no noticeable learning curve from what I can tell.

From the mid 1970′s through 1995, she definitely has a change in style. She switches to color in the mid 70′s, uses a 35mm camera (mostly a Leica), and I get the feeling that she is seeing the world differently at that time. Her work becomes more abstract in some respects, but also very literal in others. I’ll explain. Her abstract work often involves found objects either on the curb, in a garbage can or a similar setting. Some are quite good but there are so many that just leaving me scratching my head as to what she was trying to get across with the picture. The literal work is usually angled towards political, racial, or religious views. She seemed to be a liberal and of no known religious beliefs and so she would document graffiti, newspaper headlines, and racist slogans on park benches, for example. People were still in her photos, but it wasn’t a dominating content at this time. – Q & A with John Maloof [Blake Andrews]

9 minute segment on Maier

Other links

Vivian Maier, recently discovered street photographer [Kottke]
Finding Vivian Maier [Kickstarter]
Vivian Maier follow up [Metafilter]
The Lost and Found Photographs of Vivian Maier [The Kitchen Sisters on NPR]
Vivian Maier Tribute, Part IV: The Interview [MIR Appraisal Services]
Finding Vivian Maier – Slideshow and Interview with John Maloof [The Design Observer Group]
What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)? [Flickr - HCSP (Original discussion thread where story broke)]