Update: The award presentation and free screening of Finding Vivian Maier has been moved from the Patio to the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee, on Sunday, February 8, at 7:30 PM.
“I never imagined that I would be here now, with all this stuff going on.” That’s what Chicago real estate agent turned art-world entrepreneur John Maloof had to say about his life last month, shortly after the announcement that his documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, had landed an Oscar nomination.
When the Academy Awards are handed out in Los Angeles a few weeks from now, Maloof and cowriter-producer Charlie Siskel will be there, thrilled that their movie about the “North Shore nanny,” who emerged as one of the 20th century’s great street photographers after she died in obscurity in 2009, has garnered so much attention.
But the Hollywood honors, with all their red-carpet glamour, are only part of the “stuff” that Maloof had in mind. His Internet-fueled success with Vivian Maier exhibits, books, and print sales has spawned an unexpected complication—a problem that threatens to bring the whole Maier phenomenon to a halt.
It has already shut down the second-largest owner and presenter of her work, Jeffrey Goldstein, a Rogers Park artist and collector. Last month Goldstein announced the sale of the bulk of his Maier collection—17,500 black-and-white negatives—to Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery for an undisclosed sum.
That was a surprise. Like Maloof, who has more than 100,000 Maier images, Goldstein acquired his collection after Maier’s work and other belongings surfaced in a series of storage-locker auctions in 2007. And like Maloof, Goldstein wound up making her his full-time job—archiving his holdings, producing high-quality prints from her negatives, and seeing that the work got out to the public through books, exhibits, and a website, vivianmaierprints.com. Goldstein has retained about 2,000 vintage prints, 30 films, and an assortment of color images, but says he “can’t express what pain it caused” to send the bulk of his Chicago-centric collection not only out of the city, but out of the country.
Both men blame the government, which they say is attacking them, trying to get control of the work that they rescued from the dustbin and made famous. The issue is copyright, something Maloof and Goldstein thought they’d taken care of.
As he tells the story in Finding Vivian Maier, Maloof stumbled on a cache of Maier’s negatives at auction, posted a few photos on a street-photography site, and over the next couple years discovered that they were worth collecting. He started a website, vivianmaier.blogspot.com, and acquired as many more negatives as he could get his hands on. After researching the elusive details of Maier’s life, he hired genealogists to locate her heirs. When they found a cousin in France, Maloof struck a deal with him for the right to reproduce and sell her work.
Thanks to the Internet, Maier’s street scenes and candid portraits were already going viral. Her stunning shots and the story of her “double life” as dowdy nanny/brilliant street photographer proved irresistible to a huge international audience. Press coverage and social media resulted in packed exhibitions (you can still see one at the Chicago History Museum), and as of last year new prints made from her vintage negatives were selling nicely for more than $2,000 each. Besides Maloof’s three books and the film, two books have been published from Goldstein’s collection, which also got its own movie: The Vivian Maier Mystery, a BBC television documentary.
that aired in both Britain and the U.S.
Among the people captivated by what they saw of her work was a Virginia photographer and law student named David Deal, who says he learned about Maier in 2010, shortly after her photos started being disseminated online. “At first it was just the images,” Deal said in a recent phone interview. “Like the majority of people who see it, I thought it was wonderful work.” But his 20 years in professional photography had included several situations where his own copyrights were casually violated, and Deal says that “pretty early on it occurred to me that there was a very definite issue. These individuals did not have the copyright.”
How did he know? “There was no probate case file.”
The way the law works, Deal says, Maloof and Goldstein “have the negatives, and they are the rightful owners of those negatives. But there are severe limitations as to what they can do with them. The right to make any prints from negatives or reproductions of the photos stays with the photographer or her heirs.”
Bothered that “nobody was offering any resistance” to the notion that there were no other heirs, Deal says, he did some genealogical research and “literally within a couple of days” found another cousin in France. When he finished law school, he took the cousin on as his client, filing in Cook County probate court last June to have him recognized as Maier’s heir.
That hasn’t worked out so far—Deal says he’ll have to provide more evidence. But his filing did have one major effect: it triggered the government’s interest in the estate, leading to a determination by the probate court that Vivian Maier died without a will, and that there’s not enough information available about her relatives to say who’s the rightful heir. Possible inheritors include an unspecified number of distant relatives and a brother, Charles, who was six years older than Vivian and is likely dead. (Another interested researcher, photographer and Northwestern University professor Pamela Bannos, says she has proof that he is.) But he might have had children, who would be more direct heirs than any cousins.
In July, Cook County public administrator David Epstein was assigned the case by the court. He hired a private attorney, Colleen Chinlund of Arnstein & Lehr, to work on it. Shortly after that, notice went out to Maloof, Goldstein, and every gallery and publisher they’d dealt with, warning that there might be a copyright problem, and instructing them to save all records.
Maloof, who now has a second website, vivianmaier.com, says that “threatening” letter came out of the blue, frightening galleries into canceling shows and causing him to nix any future exhibitions. He hasn’t stopped selling prints made from Maier’s negatives, however. “We don’t know yet if we have to,” he says. “There’s no lawsuit at this point, and as far as we know, we have done everything right. But we don’t know what the future’s going to hold.”
The Cook County public administrator’s office refused to comment for this story. But Goldstein’s intellectual-property attorney, David Bea, says that while the unresolved estate could leave Maier’s work in legal limbo for “years and years,” it’s possible that some kind of arrangement between the government and the image owners can be made.
“What does every copyright owner want to do? They want to license their work, get it out there, and make money from it,” Bea says. “If the estate owns the copyright, I would think that signing licensing agreements with various parties to allow Vivian’s work to continue to be seen by the public would be in their best interests.”
Despite this, Goldstein tells me he’s “done.” “Cook County is not really interested in trying to negotiate,” he says. “We basically created the value of the copyright, and they’re destroying one of the greatest cultural icons of Chicago.” Maloof says that he’s already received proposals from the public administrator, but they were “wildly overreaching,” asking for “everything” in exchange for “a tiny little royalty.” Still, at press time, he was meeting this week with a copyright lawyer representing Epstein’s office.
“The main thing is this,” Maloof says. “The value of this box [of Maier’s negatives] was 380 bucks when I bought it. Period. Nobody, including myself, had any idea that she would become this popular. My work and Jeff’s . . . has made [the collection] what it is. For them to try to punish us for doing that doesn’t seem right.”
David Deal, who’s continuing his own search for potential heirs, says Maloof’s argument is beside the point: “We’re talking about intestacy law. It has nothing to do with merit-based activity.”
Meanwhile, the public administrator is in a bit of a pickle, attempting to get access to Maloof’s and Goldstein’s collections in order to do what’s needed to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, a necessary step before the estate could proceed with any litigation over infringement.
Says Bea, “That’s an interesting and kind of novel issue: the people who have the tangible expression of the copyright don’t own the copyright. And the entity that owns the copyright needs the tangible expression in order to register the copyright. Whether they can compel Jeff and John to let them see and copy the negatives is an open question.”
Maloof says being summoned to the Academy Awards while all this is pending is ironic, but not as much as this: He’s about to be presented with a resolution passed in the Illinois state legislature, honoring him for “working on behalf of the artistic legacy of Vivian Maier.” State representative Robert Martwick will make the presentation at a free public screening of Finding Vivian Maier at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee, on Sunday, February 8, at 7:30 PM.
“It’s so crazy,” Maloof says. “The state is saying ‘Congratulations for all you’ve done with Vivian Maier,’ and another part of the state is saying ‘We’re coming after you for all you’ve done with Vivian Maier.’
Correction: This article has been amended to correctly reflect that the BBC documentary The Vivian Maier Mystery has not aired in the U.S.