Found Photography

She lived in obscurity in Chicago, worked as a nanny, and for a time was homeless. But she took pictures. Tens of thousands of pictures — showing them to nobody. And then, in 2007, a young Chicagoan named John Maloof, looking for pictures for a book, bought her work at a storage locker auction.

At first he didn’t know what he had. He wasn’t a photographer. But he put some of the pictures on the net, and people responded. Eventually it became clear that he had acquired the work of an important artist — mature, perceptive, visually arresting, with hints of Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and Walker Evans.

Those pictures changed Maloof’s life. He eventually acquired roughly 100,000 images, and a great deal more that have never seen by anyone, including the photographer, since they were never developed. He’s now working full time scanning and processing them.

You can see a selection of these photographs and learn more about the story on Maloof’s blog and on this gallery from Chicago Magazine.

To find so much important work lying unseen for so long is dramatic enough, but the last act is the strangest. When Maloof first went to that auction, the photographer was still alive. But he had no idea who she was. Two years later he found a lab receipt and learned her name: Vivian Maier. He did a Google search — and discovered that she had died just days earlier, presumably unaware of what had happened to her life’s work. A fascinating, elusive character, when she wasn’t working as a nanny she was never without a camera, usually a Rolleiflex. The children she cared for likened her to Mary Poppins.

In the last year, there’s been a groundswell of interest in Maier’s photography, and Maloof is now working on a documentary and a book. You can see a trailer for the film and help fund it here. A show will open next week at the Chicago Cultural Center. A local TV station did this ten-minute profile. There are more pictures on the site of collector Jeff Goldstein. And the radio show “Which Way, LA?” covered Maier and Maloof at the end of the Dec 29 episode.

Will Maier be seen as of the great photographers of the mid-twentieth century? It’s too early to say. But whatever history decides, it’s already quite a story.

Explore posts in the same categories: Media and Society, Photography

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