#01

Winter2014

Self-portrait. Undated

Vivian Maier

Lost & found

 

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When John Maloof had the winning bid of just under $400 on a box of negatives at a Chigaco auction house in 2007, he couldn’t have had any idea that these delicate yet discarded sheets of film taken by an unknown photographer held memories of a secret world. Hoping that this unassuming box of negatives would actually hold images of the local neighbourhood for a book he was in the process of writing, this winning bid turned out to be so much more, a purchase that would lead to one of the greatest discoveries in the history of photography.

A name on the box led to a search which produced so many questions that the story of this incredible find has now become a documentary on the life and work of Vivian Maier, a non-professional photographer, who is now being hailed as one of the most remarkable photographers of her time.

To photography and history lovers alike, the discovery of Vivian Maier’s work is comparable to finding buried treasure. Maloof’s documentary Finding Vivian Maier may reveal more about the woman behind the pictures, but we wonder if it will in fact unearth more questions than answers…

Florida. 7th April,1960
Florida. 7th April,1960

 

New York, NY. Undated
New York, NY. Undated

In a world where we’re now bombarded with imagery and with photographs being published online often within seconds of being taken, it’s never been easier for people to share snapshots of time in the world around them.  Scroll through an app like Instagram and within minutes you can travel the world in pictures, from carefully posed selfies and still life food shots to more candid reportage and street style photography.

With technology feeding the desire of modern society to see the results of our photographic adventures as they happen, it’s hardly hardly surprising that the art of traditional film photography can sometimes feel like a dying skill. Just imagine taking tens of thousands of photographs that are for your eyes only, a collection of images that document the world as you see it but a view that’s not for sharing with anyone else.

Now imagine taking thousands of images as you travel through life and never ever developing the results. Those moments in time, the few seconds it takes to pass a stranger in the street, a brief glimpse into someone else’s day, all captured on film but never relived, never retold, never archived on paper to be touched, turned or explored.

When Maloof bought that box of negatives a hunt for Vivian Maier began, and with it, a quest to see if there were more images out there waiting to be reunited and archived as a collection.

 
1956

Maier was born in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father in the Bronx, New York City. Maloof’s research shows Maier spending time in France, which is where in 1949 she appears to have begun her photographic explorations by capturing images with a simple Kodak Box Brownie.  It used 6×9 film and was an incredibly basic camera for Maier to shoot with, offering not even any control to focus.

Maloof’s investigations show Maier returned to New York in 1951 where she went on to become a nanny, using her time off to carry on capturing the world around her with a Rolliflex camera. It wasn’t until 1956 that it seems she began to develop her own pictures, thanks to becoming the nanny to a new family in a home which afforded her the benefit of a private bathroom and unusually a darkroom.

 
New York, NY. 1956

This must surely have given Maier’s enthusiasm for the art of photography a lift, allowing her to work even more secretively by taking ownership of the processing from start to finish.

Maier’s work as a nanny required life to stay moveable. Children grow up and nannies must move on, from the early seventies Maier relocated from family to family. Losing the luxury of a darkroom doesn’t appear to have stopped her taking photographs, but with no processing facilities of her own, a collection of undeveloped film rolls and unprinted images began to mount up. Maloof’s enquiries have revealed that Maier, seemingly unafraid of technology when it came to her choice of camera went on to use a Leica IIIc and various other German made SLR cameras and was happy to embrace the concept of working with colour film.

 

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Families who employed Maier have described her as intensely private, a woman who walked with a purposeful stride and made no secret that she took pictures, she would spend her time off from her caring duties walking the streets and even travelling to other countries. Described as eccentric, she never married nor had children, often wore men’s shoes and it’s said that she claimed to have taught herself to speak English from watching plays. Others who claim to have known her, offer opinions that Maier was outspoken and strong of mind, happy to chat about the world but not at all open about herself.

The final years of Maier’s life feel nothing short of tragic, in a life story that gives us a single woman who, unusually for the times, travelled alone and daringly explored her surroundings to capture life in some extremely run down and deprived areas. It’s with a heavy heart that we learn that at some point between the late nineties and the early millennium years she suffered homelessness and the uncertainty of living on short term lets. These challenges in her later years forced Maier to put many of her belongings into storage including her photography equipment and her vast collection of negatives and rolls of undeveloped film.

Pointing strongly to the fact that Maier was a truly caring person (a few stories have emerged that would imply otherwise), she kept in touch with many of the families that she had provided care for.  However, her pride meant that she never seemed to ask for help, no matter how dire her circumstances became.  It was this continued contact that would finally save her from the streets and her insalubrious surroundings.

The now grown up children from one family she had worked with for fourteen years insisted she move in to an apartment they rented for her.  But, it would seem that she never returned to collect the parts of her life she’d squirrelled away in to storage. Was it lack of money or just something she might get round to one day? Another question we may never really know the answer to. Eventually in 2007 Maier’s stored items were auctioned due to rent arrears and sold off as separate lots, breaking up the collection and scattering it amongst an array of buyers, one of which was Maloof.

In 2008 Vivian Maier slipped as she walked on ice, the bump on the head she sustained was not life threatening but she never made a full recovery and was moved to a care home in 2009. It is here where the woman who had spent her life as a carer seemed to refuse to be the one receiving the care.

One can only speculate but if Maier was a free spirit inside that controlled exterior, finding herself in surroundings with no freedom to continue with life as she wished to live it (which includes being somewhat of a hoarder) this situation may

New York, NY. 1954
New York, NY. 1954
New York, NY
New York, NY

 

 
New York, NY. June 1954

have been extremely frustrating for her. Perhaps life in a care home with no freedom to walk the streets was too challenging for a woman who was an obsessive watcher of the world
around her.

Vivian Maier passed away in April 2009, leaving a legacy to photography and social history that has resulted in her posthumously being declared as one of the most prolific street photographers the world has seen.  The evidence however continues to suggest that Vivian did not ever intend for the work to be shared with an audience at all, and so our attempt to interpret her motivation can only ever be speculation. What can be said is that her work easily compares to other photography greats renowned for capturing real life such as William Klein and Eve Arnold. Her explorations in self-portraiture give us

 

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glimpses into the eyes of the photographer and whilst it’s fascinating to put a face to the artist, when so much about her thought process is unknown, she still remains something of an enigma.

The intrigue and mystery of the nanny from Chicago has captured the world but we may never truly know what it was that drove Maier to record life in this private manner. It seems unlikely that she would describe her relationship with the camera as an outlet to fearlessly explore the world around her but what can’t be doubted is the fact that her personal studies with her camera have created a chapter of social documentary that has made the world of photography a much richer place.

“Finding Vivian Maier” has been on general release in the USA from 31st March 2014
Discover more of Vivain Maier’s work at: www.vivianmaier.com

 

Kerry Curl is a blogger, hairstylist and MUA. Photography has a firm place in her heart and when she is not armed with a hair brush or a lipstick you’ll most likely find her wielding a camera. www.missyvintageblog.com