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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
;’same opportunity
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

opens Friday.

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

Rydzon says.

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

and politics.”

pictures ranging from the abstracts

funds for the film on

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

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

Mother Mary
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
a vine

CAPTION FOR PHOTO 2: Some of Vivian Maier’s
various cameras

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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