This spring, just seven years after her life’s work was sold out of storage lockers for $250 and five years after her nearly anonymous death, the Vivian Maier photography phenomenon is in robust bloom.
The elusive North Shore nanny who turned out to be a genius photographer is the subject of two prize-winning documentary films—one currently in commercial theaters, the other out on DVD and in frequent local screenings (including two last week). Then there are the two major local exhibits in extended runs, one at the Harold Washington Library Center, the other at the Chicago History Museum.
On top of that, there are three handsome hardcover books and a steady stream of media coverage. There’s an ongoing schedule of international gallery shows and a museum tour coming up for Europe. Googling “Vivian Maier” brings up millions of results.
This prodigious flowering is due in part to the appeal of Maier’s stunning midcentury photographs, most black-and-white, and in part to the irresistible story that’s been told about their discovery and her life. But it has also been fed by the divided ownership of her work, which is largely in the hands of two private collectors who function—sometimes collaboratively, sometimes in competition—as high-voltage publicity machines. Both are issuing posthumous limited editions of prints from her virgin negatives. The going price for one now starts at $2,200.
In case all this has somehow escaped you, here’s the short version: Vivian Maier was born in New York in 1926; spent a good chunk of her childhood in France, where her mother’s family lived; and supported herself most of her life as a live-in nanny. She had lived in New York, and was an experienced traveler, but from 1956 until her death in 2009, her old-fashioned Rolleiflex camera was primarily focused on Chicago and its northern suburbs, where she worked (employers included television host Phil Donahue). On days off, or with her charges in tow, she’d board the train from Highland Park or Wilmette and hit the city streets. Working mostly with 12-image rolls of film, she shot upwards of 150,000 pictures.
The vast majority of Maier’s negatives were never printed, and many rolls, especially from her impoverished later years, weren’t even developed. Intensely private, she’s been described by early employers and their children as a sort of Mary Poppins, quirky, opinionated, and interesting. Others interviewed in the documentaries recall that she was eccentric and abrasive, with a growing hoarding habit and a dark side—according to one former charge, she regularly choked a recalcitrant eater. Maier’s final years were spent in a Rogers Park apartment paid for by the family with the longest association with her and the happiest memories.
It was two years prior to her death (from head injuries suffered in a fall) that Maier fell behind in rent payments on five storage lockers and their contents were purchased by a local auctioneer, who separated them into smaller lots and sold them off. Among the original buyers was northwest-side resident John Maloof, who needed photographs for a history book he was writing about Portage Park; for his absentee bid of $400 he got a box of 30,000 negatives. Another original buyer was collector Ron Slattery, who paid $250 for boxes that included several thousand photographs. In 2010, Slattery settled a debt with Chicago artist and craftsman Jeffrey Goldstein by giving him 57 Vivian Maier prints, which started Goldstein on a quest for more.
Maloof and Goldstein now own the two largest collections of Maier’s work, having bought out a third original buyer, Randy Prow, and anyone else with Maier work they could find. Goldstein, who runs Vivian Maier Prints Inc. from an upper unit in a Rogers Park six-flat, says he and Maloof worked together for three and a half years to get the artist’s copyright (purchased from the Maier heir they located) to their materials. Maloof (vivianmaier.com) has more than 100,000 images; Goldstein (vivianmaierprints.com) about 20,000. They also own slides, rolls of film, and a smaller number of movies that Maier shot. Both have given up their other jobs to be full-time managers of their respective archives.
Maloof has kept a tight creative rein on his collection, editing two books, one of Maier’s street photography and one of her self-portraits. Working with producer Charlie Siskel (Gene’s nephew), he also cowrote and codirected (and prominently figures in) Finding Vivian Maier, the well-received documentary now in theaters. Goldstein’s collection has been mined for a handful of works by other people, most notably Richard Cahan and Michael Williams’s book Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows and a BBC documentary distributed in the U.S. under the title The Vivian Maier Mystery.
Both the documentaries and the books published so far promote the Mary-Poppins-with-a-camera enigma. But the BBC film (like a WTTW report that was among the first pieces of coverage) includes interviews with Pamela Bannos, a photographer and senior lecturer at Northwestern who specializes in historical projects. She says the nanny narrative, honed by men who control Maier’s legacy and “like a good story,” gives the photographer “short shrift.”
In an interview last week, Bannos—who’s had full access to Goldstein’s and Slattery’s collections but none to Maloof’s (in spite of two years of requests, she says)—told me she doesn’t think Maier is such a big mystery. She points out, for example, that Maier was the third generation of her family to support herself as a live-in domestic worker, so there’s nothing very surprising about her choice of occupation.
We could get closer to the truth by studying the full body of Maier’s work, Bannos says. What she’s seen so far has convinced her that Maier was “already a master of the camera” by 1950, and consciously absorbed some significant influences—including the 1951 MOMA exhibit “Five French Photographers,” which featured work by Brassai and Cartier-Bresson. How does she know this? From a photo Maier took of Salvador Dali outside the museum while the exhibit was running.
“She was also a voracious reader,” with a very large collection of photography books, Bannos notes. (Slattery, who still owns most of what he bought at the 2007 auction, says hundreds of them were sold then.) As for the idea that Maier didn’t want her photos printed, or that she was making them only for herself, “there are what I call the lost portfolios,” Bannos says—”presentation portfolios,” at least four of them, containing a total of about 150 11-by-14-inch prints, sold at the auction, resold, and not tracked down since. “What we’ve seen so far is just a piece of the story.”
Meanwhile Maloof, whose archive is now located in New York, will publish a third book this fall. Cahan and Willliams also have a new book of Maier portraits, Eye to Eye: Looking at Vivian Maier, coming out this year.
And another exhibit, “Vivian Maier—A Photographic Journey,” opens next month at the Art Center in Highland Park, where Maier, her Rollei hanging from her neck, was once a familiar figure.
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the nature of the object pictured in Pamela Bannos’s hand. It is a transparency showing Vivian Maier rather than a Maier self-portrait.