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Friday, May 28, 2010

Vivian Maier Tribute, Part IV: The Interview

Interview with John Maloof, Excavator of the Vivian Maier Treasure Trove

[All images marked are photographic works by John Maloof;
final image marked is a photograph taken by David Schalliol; all other images are photographs taken by Vivian Maier, from]

Jessica Savitz: Do you believe it was your fate to find the photographs of Vivian Maier?

John Maloof: I can’t say I believe in fate. There have been several very coincidental circumstances that helped motivate me to acquire this archive and expose her work. Many of them seem to defy the odds.

JS: How has finding the Vivian Maier collection changed your life?

JM: In the most obvious way, I’m now a street photographer in charge of Maier’s legacy. That is a huge responsibility that I have been involved in for the past few years and see myself being involved in for years to come.

John Maloof, Chicago, 2010

JS: How extraordinary to locate an unknown master artist and to have that artist serve, posthumously, as your personal teacher as you execute your own experiments with street photography. How has Maier influenced you? What is your own photographic process like?

JM: Maier has taught me to be patient and pay attention to details. I can definitely say that my photography had started by mimicking her style. I'm now drifting toward the "decisive moment" photograph and away from the "intimate moment" type of photograph that I think Maier is known for.

John Maloof, NYC, 2010

JS: Have you attempted to revisit and perhaps recapture, from your perspective,
photographs taken by Maier from particular locales in the city?

John Maloof, Untitled, 2010

JM: I have, once. That was one of the first times I hit the streets with her inspiration. I've learned in the beginning, by copying Vivian's style, how difficult it is to create a good image.

John Maloof, Chicago, 2010

JS: What is it like to encounter a roll of mysterious film shot in the 1960s and wait for the photographs to be developed?

JM: I have them developed in batches if I don't do them myself. They are then sorted and scanned. It is always exciting to pick up a batch from the developer. You never know what is on those rolls. I don't have photographs printed from them.

JS: The poet Marvin Bell, after many years of taking photographs, discussed a rather philosophical turn in his craft—Marvin Bell: "First I stopped using film. I took the camera out, set it on a tripod, adjusted the swings and tilts and bellows and lens, and looked, but I took no pictures… I had learned to see as a photographer, which was of more moment to me than producing pictures to a frame." Since Maier left undeveloped 30-40,000 rolls of film, do you think photography for her was a sort of spiritual or meditative practice, or at the very least do you think she was almost entirely unattached to the results of her photographic endeavors enough not to need to develop the film? Was it a matter of money? Do you think her aspirations lay only in the process of taking the photographs, rather than producing them?

JM: Of course, I can't say for sure but, I think it was a matter of money but also, since she never really showed anyone her images, she must have taken photography as a personal hobby.

She had different points in her life where she had a darkroom. In the cases where she didn't, I would assume this is where the rolls began to build up.

JS: How do you think Vivian Maier’s Chicago is different from the Chicago of today?

JM: Chicago in the '50s and '60s was a different place. The fashion and the cars are the most noticeable differences of the time. Although many of the same buildings still stand today, the city has grown immensely since and changed the feel. The older brick and mortar structures now are nestled in with glass and steel. It just feels different.

JS: Where and who do you think she would fix her attention upon if she were taking photographs in this era?

JM: I'm not sure but, since her work spans from the '50s to the mid '90s (not long ago), I can guess that she'd be doing the same work. She loved children, older women, and people that I feel she thought of as interesting, such as the homeless.

JS: The street photographer must be brazen and super covert, all at once—how do you think Maier was received on the streets of Chicago? Do you think, besides the realm of Central Camera, she was a recognizable "fixture" on the Chicago streets, with her big hats and men’s coats and shoes?

JM: I would think so. Also, keep in mind that, as a woman, she would not have had aggressive reactions from people whom she took pictures of, especially taking pictures of children. If it were a male, I think there'd be a lot of resistance. People didn't seem to mind her taking their pictures. I haven't seen any photos with evidence to the contrary.

JS: Do you think her many years in Europe gave her an "outside edge"—the necessary remove to document a near-anthropological "study" of an American city?

JM: I'm still learning about Vivian's past. I can't say for sure that she was completely European, but, at this point, it seems likely. If that is the case, it would make sense that she would find the common everyday aspects of American life a bit different and interesting.

JS: What is her moving film like? Did she see herself as a documentarian?

JM: She documented the children she nannied for mostly. But, she also documented the Chicago streets. Many of the films are just her on what seem to be lone adventures with her camera, exploring the city—parades, the Chicago Stock Yards, demolition of notable Louis Sullivan architecture, the return of the Apollo crew, etc. I do think she found herself as a documentarian.

JS: It seems Vivian Maier would have had many cohorts had she been involved directly with the Institute of Design. She seems to have almost absorbed a lot of the stylistic tendencies of the "Chicago School" without actually having known, for example, Barbara Crane and Ray Metzker. Why do you think this is? Is there something fundamentally unusual about the light here in Chicago that breeds these brilliant photographic works, as Colin Westerbeck asserts?

JM: Vivian has many styles based on the work she produced. Although some of her images may seem to have influences from the Institute of Design as you noted, I'd argue that if you have a large enough body of work, you'll find coincidences as to many styles. Who knows, she may have been somewhat influenced after visiting an exhibition in Chicago but, I can only say that, living the life she did, I doubt there is any schooling or major influences on her work.

JS: From what we know, Maier was a self-taught photographer. Are there any recent developments in discovering more about her personal life and when and how she came to be interested in photography? Has anyone located any of Maier’s journals?

JM: Maier never kept journals, at least none were found in her passing. Not sure why but, perhaps her photography was the record that she felt important to document. There have been some very important discoveries in her history that reveal interesting insight to her possible spark into photography. Unfortunately, because we are working on the documentary film, I am not allowed to spoil the mystery ; )

JS: We can assume Maier might have witnessed important photographic exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago—such as Brassai (in 1955), Margaret Bourke-White (in 1956) or John Szarkowski (in 1960)— how familiar do you think she might have been with the works of these and other seminal photographers, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Robert Frank?

JM: She wasn't in Chicago until around 1956/57 so she wouldn't have seen the first two you mentioned. I know, based on the books she owned, that she was aware of notable photographers such as Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, etc. I assume she knew of Cartier-Bresson and the other as well.

JS: I wonder what a typical day in the life of Vivian Maier might have been. By sort of taking her emotional and aesthetic "temperature" through looking intently at her photographs, what sort of person do you imagine Vivian Maier to have been? Do you think you would have been friends?

JM: I know what type of person Vivian Maier was by now. I've met with many of the families she worked for and the description is the same with every family. She was a firm, strong, opinionated woman. She held herself well and was self-educated. I'm not sure if we'd have been friends. I'd definitely like to have been but, not sure if she'd let me in beyond small talk.

JS: I recently encountered the photographs of Gary Stochl; though he kept his work private for over four decades, he recently shared his work and received recognition for his photographs. What do you think Vivian would think about all of the recent attention given to her work?

JM: That is a question I'll never know the answer to. I ask that question all the time myself. I think her work is too important to keep in the dark for fear she may not have wished to expose it, though.

JS: I forget sometimes that the world was "in color" during time periods of such frequent use of black-and-white film and moving film. I tend to imagine the atmosphere surrounding people contingent upon the mediums they had at hand to document life; I think of my grandmother with her high-heels and hats and the downtown trolley as a little universe of black-and-white, and the world of my parents in the 1970s trimmed in white Polaroid borders. William Eggleston said, "The world is in color. And there is nothing we can do about that." Even if Maier had, at some point in her life, access to the tools to record life in color, it’s hard to imagine it suiting her style. Isn’t it hard to believe Chicago was "in color" when Maier shot her photographs? What do you think she would have done with color?

JM: Maier did work in color; I just haven't posted any of it yet. She started working in color in the '70s through the '90s. Keep an eye out for Nick Turpin's street photography magazine called PUBLICATION (UK based), which will feature some of Vivian's color work.

JS: Isn’t it eerie and lovely to imagine a Chicagoan recognizing the face of an aged family member in one of Maier’s photographs? Has anyone written to you with any such news?

JM: No news of anyone recognizing people in her photographs.

JS: There is such a thin membrane between artistic mediums, and painting and photography continually influence one another, and photography and moving film act upon one another as well. We know Maier loved the cinema, and you can see its influence upon her photography, which at times has a sort of film noir quality. Do you think her countless photographs, all together, would weave some sort of epic narrative? Do you sense an underlying "story" in her works?

JM: To be honest, I haven't even gone through all of her work yet. There is an immense amount of it. I can't make any conclusion on a narrative other than what can be seen posted so far.

JS: What sorts of Vivian Maier projects are currently in the works?

JM: Currently, a feature-length documentary film is in the works on this story; we are finding exciting twists and turns in this saga. A book by PowerHouse is in the process. Both of these are expected to be finished by the first half of next year. The Chicago Cultural Center will be exhibiting Maier's work early next year. So far, that is what I'm working on.

JS: What would you ask Vivian Maier if you could talk to her in person?

JM: I would ask her if she's okay with what I'm doing.

* * *

What an honor for the appraisers at MIR to evaluate the stunning works of Vivian Maier. Many thanks to John Maloof for his generous participation in the Maier series and interview.
Next week, to begin the month of June, we will post part one of an interview with photographer David Schalliol. Schalliol, a photographer and sociologist, masterfully photographs Chicago’s South and West Sides.

David Schalliol, from his Isolated Buildings Studies,

* * *

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.

Interview by Jessica Savitz

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 814-8510

Works Cited:
Bell, Marvin. A Marvin Bell Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose. Hanover: Middlebury College Press, 1994, 161, 216.
All images marked are photographic works by John Maloof; final image marked is a photograph taken by David
Schalliol. All other images are photographs taken by Vivian Maier, from

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.