The Wheel of Reputation: Vivian Maier

History doesn’t just repeat itself, it is also in the business of re-invention. The discovery in Chicago three years ago of a cache of photographs and negatives by Vivian Maier is a classic case of history’s ability to curl back time and insert a new chapter into its ongoing narrative.

Vivian Maier was a nanny for over 40 years in Chicago, working for families on the North Shore. That would be a worthy but unremarkable story. What makes it unusual is that she was also obsessed with photography and, at her death in 2009 at the age of 83, left behind a legacy of some 150,000 prints and negatives. She died in an old folk’s home, her life’s work not even in her possession.

Much of that work was bought at auction by a young real estate salesman and amateur historian named John Maloof. While he didn’t know what he was getting, he recognized something special in the prints he saw. Maloof has some 3000 prints and 100,000 negatives, even cameras and clothing. Jeffrey Goldstein, a carpenter and art aficionado purchased the remaining portion of the work; his collection is comprised of 12,000 pieces, including 1000 vintage photos, negatives, rolls of film and a number of home movies. Together, for aesthetic and commercial reasons, these two men have made it their life’s work to secure posthumously for Vivian Maier the reputation she didn’t receive while she was alive.

She deserves a huge reputation. During her lifetime, Maier showed her work to very few people and never sought exhibitions. It seems that taking the photographs was enough. “She was using photography as a rope to tether herself,” says Goldstein. “She was constantly the outsider and she had an affinity with the people she shot on the street. I don’t think she was interested in historic documentation; what she was coming to terms with was more her sense of place.”

Whether shooting people on the street, children or self-portraits, her photographs indicate a formidable sense of composition. Once her work becomes better known, she will undoubtedly emerge as one of America’s finest photographers. Until then, there is much to see and much to learn about her life in France and in the United States. She was also an inveterate traveller, going to places as varied as South America and

Churchill, Manitoba. Everywhere she went, she took pictures. Her library, which included photographic histories as well as books on Cecil Beaton, Gita Lenz, Berenice Abbott and Thomas Struth, indicates that she was constantly looking at the work of other photographers. She had no formal education, so she taught herself through looking and doing.

The Maloof collection includes a cassette tape of Maier talking about the transitory nature of life and reputation. “I suppose nothing is meant to last forever,” we hear her saying. “We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel.” What’s clear is that the wheel is turning and it is only just beginning to make room for this extraordinary photographer.

Above images: (Left) Vivian Maier, Untitled (girl floating), June 21, 1968, printed 2011, silver gelatin print, edition of 15, 12 x 12”. All images courtesy Russel Bowman Art Advisory, Chicago. (Centre) Self-portrait, ca. 1968, printed 2011, silver gelatin print, edition of 15, 12 x 12”. (Right) Untitled (woman with ticket)*, no date, printed 2011, islver gelatin print, edition of 15, 12 x 12”.*

Work by Vivian Maier is on exhibition at the Hearst Gallery in New York from July 18 to January 31, 2012. Her work will also be featured in two shows opening in New York on December 15: at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, which will continue through January 28, and at the Steven Kasher Gallery, which will continue through February 25. A documentary film on her life and work is also being made and a number of books is in the works.

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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