“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and spread its fragrance on the desert air,” wrote the poet Gray. If a young man named John Maloof had not discovered the wealth of photographs taken by Vivian Maier, the world would have never known of the street photographer who called herself ‘a sort of spy.’
Vivian was born in France on February 1st, 1926. She was of mixed descent with a French mother and an Austrian father, who abandoned his family when she was a child. A portrait photographer named Jeanne Bertrand befriended her mother. Perhaps Vivian’s interest in photography was nurtured by this lady.
In her youth, Vivian shuttled between France and USA until in 1951, she settled down in New York. She was an intensely private person, eccentric but intelligent, and cared nothing for what people thought about her. Shabbily dressed in a long loose dress with a baggy woollen overcoat, solid boots and floppy hat, she never stepped into the street without her camera dangling from her neck. Her first camera was a simple box camera. Objects and people on the streets fascinated her.
Vivian came to New York as nanny to a family who sailed to USA from Southampton. She continued to work for the family between 1951 and1956, and could now afford to buy a more sophisticated Leica IIIc, with which she could take coloured photographs. From photographing objects and landmarks, she now turned to capturing people in her films. She had a great affinity for the poor, their life styles, and their struggles. Whatever caught her eye she photographed and documented. She also developed an inexplicable urge to hoard things. Newspapers, garbage cans, discarded items on the roadside were collected and stored in boxes.
In 1957, Vivian moved to Chicago where she again sought employment as a nanny to three children. They were here closest family. She was like a second mother to the children, fond of them but also very strict. When she took them outdoors, she was also busy photographing whatever caught her fancy. She had a small room to herself which doubled as a dark room to develop her pictures. She also had access to the attic in which she hoarded her collection of newspapers, clippings, film rolls and other knick knacks. The attic was always locked permitting no entry to the children.
During her tenure as a nanny, she would make short trips to other parts of the country, Canada, South America, and some cities in Europe. She always travelled alone and indulged freely in her hobby of photography.
By the early ‘70s the children had all grown up and needed no nanny. She moved from family to family in Chicago and nannied in this city for a total of seventeen years. But she could no more develop her rolls of film. They had to be put in boxes with all the other junk she had accumulated. In 1980, she stopped photographing, and her camera too went into storage.
Vivian managed to live in a tiny studio apartment which was paid for by one of the families for whom she had worked. But when she could not pay the rent to the storage companies, one of her storage bins was auctioned without her knowledge, to cover the rent.
In 2007, John Maloof a young man was writing a book about Chicago. He visited the local auction to see if he could get photographs or material for his book. Paying $400/- he bought one of her boxes which contained hundreds of negatives depicting scenes from Chicago. He became obsessed with Vivian’s work and started buying back stuff from other buyers who had attended the auction. He also acquired items from her other two boxes.
Within a year, John had salvaged about 90% of her work. There were 100000 to 150000 negatives, 3000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film and audiotapes. She had methodically documented many of the photographs. Vivian Maier became John Maloof’s magnificent obsession.
In 2008, Vivian skidded on ice and injured her head. She never recovered and died in a nursing home on April 21st, 2009.
The first story about Vivian was published in 2009. Her life and works not only became Maloof’s passion but also contributed to his livelihood. The first exhibition of her work was in 2010. These were scans of all her negatives. Since then this exhibition has travelled all over USA, from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York. It has been exhibited in many European countries as well. So well archived, it has rekindled an interest in street photography and in the life and work of an extremely private woman who was a law unto herself.