Street photographers, near‐mystics or mystical scientists, encounter large bodies of data on the busy life of the street and quickly divine the gems, recording the evocative patterns, harmonies, dissonance and stark bones of plot that emerge; quoting Robert Adams, “The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace.”1
This month of May at MIR, we pay homage to a sterling street photographer from the mid‐century—Vivian Maier, whose brilliant works we recently evaluated.
THE PERSONAL LIFE OF VIVIAN MAIER
Born in 1926 in New York, Vivian Maier moved to France in her early youth, returning to New York in 1951. She later moved to Chicago where she lived for the next five decades, earning money as a nanny in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Details of her private life are as mysterious as tightly wound, spooled film negatives.
The outward signs of her proclivity for art were, of course, her Rolleiflex camera, most always on a strap about her neck, her self‐proclaimed title as a “film critic,” and her eccentric dress—men’s shoes and jackets and big hats. Children for whom she served as a nanny remembered her as having, in the words of John Maloof, “a peculiar personality… she would bring home a dead snake to show them, or convince the milkman to drive them all to school in his delivery truck. They loved her.”2 Indeed, these grown children later rescued Maier from homelessness and
poverty in her advanced years, buying her an apartment and supporting her until her death in 2009.
JOHN MALOOF’S DISCOVERY
These scant details of her personal life and, most importantly, the evidence of her enormous breadth of masterful photographic work, indelibly tie Vivian Maier to John Maloof, who first came upon Maier’s impressive oeuvre. Maloof purchased a box of Maier’s negatives from an auction house, later acquiring several boxes of her materials from many fellow auction attendees. His Vivian Maier collection constitutes 100,000 negatives, roughly 1500 undeveloped rolls of film, and some of her rather poetic documentaries captured in moving film. Although Maloof contacted the auction house to find Maier, he was advised not to seek her out because of her fragile state of health; when he later attempted to find online information concerning Maier, he found she had passed away just days before.
Besides locating and speaking with a few of the grown children for whom she used to nanny, he has visited with some folks at Central Camera, where she purchased her film. They remembered her as a “’keep your distance from me’ type of person’” who was “also outspoken. She loved foreign films and didn’t care much for American films.”3 The nature of her character develops incrementally, like an image birthed in a darkroom—the common motifs center about her love for the cinema and her devoted photographic practice, although she kept her images strictly private.
VIVIAN MAIER’S CUMULATIVE, INEXAUSTABLE CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ
What an honor to witness the organic unfolding of Maier’s prolific body of work through John Maloof, rather than what could have been a stylized portrayal in a slick, overwrought exhibition catalogue—the works brought to the public’s attention in Maloof’s spirit of discovery, and posted on his blog (http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/) as he develops the rolls, allow us all to witness the unfolding of a personality—we sense the complex emotional and philosophical temperatures of this photographer. (Isn’t it wondrous to reflect upon the fact that John Maloof has been in the process of developing some 20‐30,000 Maier negatives from the ‘60s and ‘70s?)4
Freed from the traditional formalized structure of selected works in a museum exhibition (Maloof deems a huge body of work— approximately 1 of every 10 photographs—excellently fit to post)5, we sense the larger stylistic scope of her works. Under the broad umbrella of “street photography,” we find Maier personally standing with her Rolleiflex camera—her pathos, wit, boldness, and love affair with strict black and white rainbows of the mid‐century all exposed for us.
OUR DEVOTION TO THE OUEVRE OF VIVIAN MAIER
It is exciting to anticipate the cultural resonance of Maier’s recently discovered works. Certainly we at MIR feel that it is an immense honor to serve as advocates for the works of Vivian Maier, and we look forward to serving as aids in preserving this important body of work for posterity.
Please visit our blog site again soon! Next week, I will showcase more images of Maier’s striking photographs along with commentary—also in the works: an interview with John Maloof, the marvelous excavator of this Maier treasure trove!
The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers.
We are located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for a verbal evaluation of your most prized works of art.
Researched and written by Jessica Savitz
MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Foot notes/Works cited:
1 Szarkowski, John. William Eggleston’s Guide, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976, 7.
2 John Maloof, from his blog: http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
4 John Maloof, from his blog: http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
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