Sunday, January 2, 2011

Discovering Vivian Maier

She may be the best photographer you never heard of.

Starting in the 1950s, Vivian Maier shot over 100,000 pictures -- mostly of Chicago street scenes -- but she recently went to her grave with none of her work published or exhibited. In fact, about a third of her images were still on undeveloped rolls of film. Acquaintances knew her simply as a reclusive French immigrant who worked as a nanny, and who happened to take a lot of pictures. She discreetly and expertly chronicled Chicago life for decades, in candid shots clearly inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his ilk, but apparently never showed the photos to anyone. They remained stashed in boxes.

The treasures came to light in almost storybook fashion -- bought at an antiques auction by a young real-estate agent who had no formal photography training, yet recognized something special about them. The auction house had acquired them from a storage facility that had sold them off when the bills weren't paid.

Though John Maloof had never even heard the term "street photography," his purchase proved serendipitous. He began scanning and developing the prints, a project that is still in progress. The photos inspired him to try his hand at taking pictures himself: "I bought her same camera [a Rolleiflex] and took to the same streets, soon to realize how difficult it was to make images of her caliber. I discovered the eye she had for photography through my own practice."

Maloof thought to Google Maier's name, which he found written on photo-lab envelopes, a year after his purchase. But by then it was too late. Her obituary was published the day before his search. (It made no mention whatsoever of her photography.)

However, from talking to families Maier worked for, and the camera shop she frequented, Maloof subsequently discovered that "Vivian came here from France in the early 1930's and worked in a sweat shop in New York when she was about 11 or 12... She was a socialist, a feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. She wore a men's jacket, men's shoes and a large hat most of the time."

Maloof started a blog devoted to Vivian Maier and his quest to establish her reputation among the pantheon of celebrated mid-20th century street photographers. Local media recently picked up the story -- including WTTW TV's Chicago Tonight and Chicago Magazine.

The first exhibit of her work, at the Chicago Cultural Center -- 80 prints, both black-and-white and color -- goes on display from January 8 to April 3.

According to Maloof:
"There's still a good 90,000 negatives to scan and a few hundred B&W rolls to develop. Not to mention about 600 undeveloped color rolls. I've also safely archived over 3000 of her prints...Over the course of scanning her work I've discovered that Vivian traveled the world in 1959. She visited and photographed places like Egypt, Bangkok, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Italy, Indonesia...the list goes on. Something also notable is that she traveled alone."
A book of her work will be publshed this year, and Maloof is raising funds for a documentary, "Finding Vivian Maier."

Lots to look forward to. Critics have favorably compared her work to icons such as Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model and Helen Levitt. Please take a look at Vivian Maier's oeuvre, and let us know if you think it's in the same league as images by those top street photographers of that era.

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