Humbled by a feminist pot of gold at the end of a corner rainbow.
Vivian Maier’s photography was discovered in 2007 when 29-year-old John Maloof attended an antique auction and paid $400 for box of negatives. The box belonged to a woman who had failed to maintain payments on the storage locker that held 20-30,000 of her undeveloped photos. As a result — or perhaps due to an earlier resolve — the woman never studied the layers of street life she’d captured as an amateur photographer, and hundreds of rolls of her undeveloped film became property of Maloof.
For Maloof, the mystery of the unseen pictures and the power of the ones he held in his hands compelled him to mimic Maier’s efforts with a similar Rolleiflex twin-lens camera. He also began asking around, starting with shops that may have sold Vivian her film. Maloof writes in his Vivian Maier blog, “They say she was a very ‘keep your distance from me’ type of person, but was also outspoken. She loved foreign films and didn’t care much for American films.”
Maier was born in New York in 1926, but was raised in France. In 1956 after a short time back in New York, she moved to Chicago, where she worked for almost 40 years as a suburban nanny. When not tending to her charges, she roamed the streets with her cameras.
I’m no photography expert, critic or discerner of skill, but Maier’s strengths might be compared to those of Art Kane and Dorothea Lange, perhaps Gary Leonard or either of the Alfreds: Stieglitz and Eisenstaedt. A pre-Hollywood Kubrick even took a crack at Chicago but, talented as he was, Kubrick couldn’t have reached the levels of sensitivity that Vivian Maier captured – and he would’ve gotten mugged. Of them all, only Dorothea Lange can really compare, and she’s best known for what, government work? (Okay, that was low.)
Vivian Maier was a self-guided, professional monastic who sought no paycheck or acclaim, an independent, opinionated woman who wandered with her chin held high. Little else is known about her or about why she kept her gold hidden — even from herself. Maybe she was nuts. But crazy people usually don’t keep such coherent temperaments for 40-year stretches.
There are no celebrated masters of 20th century photography or photojournalism that will ever match, picture-for-picture, what Maier was able to realize on the streets of New York and Chicago. And if there were a reasonably similar vigilance, it probably wouldn’t be a buried treasure.
So sit back in your chair, fire up your iTunes, and enjoy Vivian Maier’s portfolio without my unqualified praise. She did this for you, now, today, this moment. And remember, you’re learning of her work before you see her pictures being used to sell calendars and State Farm. (No offense, John Maloof.)