An unknown photo genius…..


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

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About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 years...my first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money back...no arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
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2 Responses to An unknown photo genius…..

  1. reocochran says:

    This is great that you gave us a part of Vivien Maier’s work and her special photography talent. Street photos are so meaningful since they are not posed and are “real.” Great post, worth studying and checking out more.. Thanks for this gift to let us know of the $380 find of over 100,000 works of art, film that was not made for fame or fortune. A nanny who lived a simple life and left a legacy.

    • hi, robin!
      thank you for dropping in…yes, indeed…this lady’s work is seminal….but isn’t it always the case…that genius sometimes lies hidden and is only realised when the person is not there…..
      hope you have a very pleasant weekend….whats left of it, ma’am!

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