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Finding Vivian Maier
By Mary Walker
“Well, I suppose
nothing is meant to
last forever. We have
to make room for
other people. It’s a
wheel. You get on,
you have to go to
the end. And then
somebody has the
to go to the end and
so on.” – Vivian Maier
When John Maloof bid on a box of
old photo negatives at an estate auction in 2007, little did he know he
was stepping deep into the mystery
of Vivian Maier.
Maloof, then a real estate agent, was
looking for images to use in a book
about the history of the Portage Park
neighborhood. Instead, what he
found were 30,000 images by Maier,
who spent much of her time wandering Chicago and the world as a street
photographer with a keen eye for
capturing compelling images.
Since then, Maloof has amassed an
archive of Maier’s life and work.
Stashed in the attic studio of his
Portage Park home are her cameras,
2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and
100,000 negatives, as well as many
8mm movies and audiotapes. Stacks
of old suitcases, a steamer trunk of
clothes and scrapbooks filled with
Maier’s photographs and life story
newspaper clippings are stacked
are gaining attention, including at
Maloof and his longtime friend
against one wall.
the Chicago Cultural Center, where
Anthony Rydzon are co-directing a
On a recent weekday morning,
the exhibit “Finding Vivian Maier:
documentary about Maier. A book,
Maloof stood in the midst of it all and
Chicago Street Photographer”
due out later this year, also is in the
looked around. He knows he’s on the
works. For some time now, they’ve
verge of something pretty cool, and
“There weren’t many women doing
been stitching together the details
it came about by pure luck.
street photography in the ’50s and
of Maier’s life and trying to fill in the
“When I bought all this, I had no
’60s,” said Lanny Silverman, chief
idea what it was,” Maloof said. “I’m
curator at the Cultural Center. “So
Sifting through the negatives in
a third-generation flea market seller
this is very interesting and notewor-
2009, Maloof found Maier’s name
and could have easily just sold it all
thy. Beyond just the story of her life,
on an envelope and Googled it.
to someone else.”
I think she’s quite a good photogra-
What he found was an obit. Aston-
ishingly, it was dated just a few days
She dressed in oversize coats, broad-
didn’t let anyone or anything stop
companion. Another mystery is how
to take his own pictures.
brimmed hats and stout shoes.
she could afford such a trip. There
“As I progressed as a photographer
But even more surprisingly, there
“First thing in the morning on her
Maier’s work is the purest form
is some evidence of an inheritance,
and went back and visited her work,
was no mention of her photography.
day off, the camera would be around
of art; none of it was done for any
I realized the cityscapes were not
“I was shocked,” Maloof, 29, said.
her neck, and we wouldn’t see
commercial reason. Her images lean
“Ever since then I’ve been trying to
her again until late at night,” said
toward women, children, the old, the
the answer to these and many other
people, the street scenes, the overall
find out more about her.”
Maren Baylaender, whose husband
poor, the abstract.
questions about Maier’s life and
composition,” he said. “There was
The details of Maier’s life are slowly
employed Maier to care for his
“What is intriguing about Vivian is
work. The results of their detective
so much more to this work than I
lining up, according to Maloof.
disabled daughter. “I remember her
that there are so many interesting
work will be unveiled in the book
thought, and I realized that I was
They’ve contacted several local
as a private person but one who had
pictures,” Silverman said.
and documentary film “Finding
sitting on something more impor-
families that employed her as a
very strong opinions about movies
Silverman sees influences in her
Vivian Maier.” They are raising
tant than I ever imagined. Now our
nanny and talked with employees of
pictures ranging from the abstracts
funds for the film on kickstarter.com
goal is to get her name out there.
Central Camera, where she had film
Maier was a theater and movie
reminiscent of Institute of Design
(search for Vivian Maier). As Maloof
To get Vivian Maier into the history
developed. But as of now no direct
buff. She was a hoarder and a bit of
greats Harry Callahan and Aaron
scans in more of her photos, he posts
relatives have turned up.
a recluse, but she wasn’t afraid to
Siskind to the styles of Diane Arbus,
them at vivianmaier.com.
Maier was born in 1926 in New York
walk the street with her camera and
Lisette Model and Helen Levitt,
But Maloof often wonders if he’ll
and spent much of her childhood
engage people, some of whom she
and he wonders: “Was Vivian very
ever work his way through all the
in France. In 1951, she returned
interviewed on audiotape. She seems
sophisticated and able to do this or
negatives, which he has stored in
to New York and in 1956 came to
to have been somewhat obsessed
was she a tasteful lifter of those who
three tall, fireproof file cabinets.
Chicago to work as a nanny for a
with her “second job,” documenting
came before her?”
The funny thing is he had no real
North Shore family. Maier, who was
the world around her.
At one point, Maier spent nearly a
interest in photography until he
a private person by all accounts and
“She was a true artist and followed
year traveling around the world to
discovered Maier’s work. Inspired by
a bit of a character, always had a
her dreams and what she wanted to
exotic and out-of-the-way destina-
her architectural shots, Maloof actu-
Rolleiflex camera around her neck.
do in life,” said Rydzon, 31. “She
tions with her camera as her only
ally went out on the street and began
Maloof and Rydzon are looking for
what was important to her. It’s the
Often described as ‘Mary-Poppin’s’, Vivian Maier had
eccentricity on her side as a nanny for three boys who she
raised like a mother. Starting in 1956, working for the
Gensburgs in an upper-class suburb of Chicago along
Lake Michigan’s shore, Vivian had a taste of motherhood.
She’d take the boys on trips to strawberry fields to pick
berries. She’d find a dead snake on the curb and bring
P hotos a nd captions for sidebar story:
CAPTION FOR PHOTO 1: Vivian Maier swinging on
CAPTION FOR PHOTO 2: Some of Vivian Maier’s
CAPTION FOR PHOTO 3: Vivian Maier’s bathroom
doubled as a darkroom
it home to show off to the boys or organize plays with all
of the children on the block. Vivian was a free spirit and
PHOTO 1: 1 Vivian Maier PERSONAL LIFE.jpg
followed her curiosities wherever they led her.
PHOTO 2: 2 vivian_maiers_cameras_large.jpg
Having told others she had learned English from theaters
PHOTO 3: 3 vivian_maiers_darkroom_large.jpg
and plays, Vivian’s ‘theater of life’ was acted out in front
of her eyes for her camera to capture in the most epic
moments. Vivian had an interesting history. Her family
was completely out of the picture very early on in her life,
forcing her to become singular, as she would remain for
the rest of her life. She never married, had no children,
nor any very close friends that could say they “knew” her
on a personal level.
Maier’s photos also betray an affinity for the poor,
arguably because of an emotional kinship she felt with
those struggling to get by. Her thirst to be cultured led
her around the globe. At this point we know of trips to
Canada in 1951 and 1955, in 1957 to South America, in
1959 to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, in 1960 to
Florida, in 1965 she’d travel to the Caribbean Islands,
and so on. It is to be noted that she traveled alone and
gravitated toward the less fortunate in society.
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