Once in a while, you come across something, quite by chance, that really surprises you.
It could be an old book in an equally old bookstore, an old camera in an antique shop, or as in this case, a box full of photographs, slides and negatives, photographer unknown.
Such was the case when a gentleman found a case just like that described above, at an auction in 2007.
The gentleman was John Maloof, a realtor based in Chicago.
Aside making a living from selling houses, John also loved to dabble in historical things, hence his presence in that auction.
What John found was a box full of film negatives, which he bought for a princely sum of $380. Little was he to know at the time, that he had purchased quite possibly the material of the 20th century’s most important street photographer, Vivien Maier.
Her work shows the richness, beauty and undistorted perspective of pre – digital photography, when every single click of a camera shutter button was treated with the compositional appreciation of a painter.
The lustre , the lush , the romance and the light of a silver gelatin photograph is clearly evident when we look at prints made from film.
But that is not to decry digital. Even film photographers have always used techniques to make their work better, be it by cropping, dodging, burning, or tweaking contrast or color, so because these same techniques are now much more streamlined and utilise computer programs should not, in essence, detract from the end result, a fabulous print.
What a lot of film users continue to mention however, is some kind of distorted perspective in digital photography, that cannot be easily defined, but is still disturbingly there.
She worked as a children’s nanny, kept to herself most of the time, only going out for essential things, or on one of her many walks in her neighbourhood, during which she took as many shots as she could.
For a time, the box was stored in a cupboard, until such a time when John found time to have a proper look at what he had bought. It was to be an enormous task, as the total number of negatives was around the 100,000 mark!
It soon became apparent that these were no ordinary shots of the 50s and 60s Chicago and New York, so he decided to do some detective work and came up with the owner’s name, Vivien Maier.
Tragically, by the time John had found out her name etc, she had passed away, an obituary notice advising the fact in the Chicago Tribune in 2009. She had apparently had an accident, suffering a serious head injury when slipping on ice in the winter of the previous year. She never fully recovered. She was 83 years old.
Her story is so very different from what we are used to hearing about today, of what is a mostly celebrity-driven culture. She was different then, and she and her work definitely would be unique today if she were alive and working.
It’s so rare to hear about someone doing something that isn’t for the money or the fame, or both, and Vivien did it to satisfy her curiosity, her love of her cities, or perhaps just the trill of capturing something that would be gone in a few seconds….we will never know the truth of what drove her.
She was born in New York but subsequently raised in France, where she and her mother lived with the French pioneer of photography, Jeanne J Bertrand. Therein lies the secret possibly of Vivien’s interest in taking photos…it is quite feasible that she developed her interest due to having a photographer around all the time.
By 1951, Vivian had moved back to New York, and at the age of 25, she worked in a local sweat shop for a while, until picking a vocation she would take part in for the next 40 or so years, being a children’s nanny.
On her days off work, she would walk the streets of New York or Chicago taking shots of people, locations, everything, including at one point, her own reflections.
She mainly worked with medium format, using her Rolleiflex twin lens camera, but she also used 35mm, too, as shown in one of her own photos here, where she had captured herself reflected in a train carriage, peering down into her Rolleiflex, but with a smaller 35mm camera slung around her neck.
Since 2007, when John Maloof bought those negatives, Vivien’s name has become he most famous in the art world, with her work being shown in exhibitions all over the world, from New York, London, Chicago, Hamburg, Oslo and LA.
What has happened since? Well, John has made a film about Vivien which is due to be shown some time this year.
Even so, there are still some aspects of her life we shall never, ever know, and it may be just what she wanted all the time….
all work courtesy flickr.com