A Master Street Photographer is Unearthed

Photo by Vivian Maier, courtesy of John Maloof

The late photographer Vivian Maier has been having a bit of resurgence lately — actually, resurgence implies she was known at all. In fact, the Chicago nanny’s work might never have seen the light of day if weren’t for a fortuitous string of events.

It all started when a young real estate agent named John Maloof purchased Maier’s collection of about 10,000 negatives at an auction house in 2007, with the intention of finding archival photos for a book he was working on about a local park. He didn’t find what he was looking for, but instead was propelled on an intense journey to discover who Maier was, and beyond that, bring her the recognition she so richly deserves.

Through his amateur detective work, soliciting advice on Flickr, research, and reaching out to the families she’d worked for, Maloof was able to piece together Maier’s story, and more importantly, ascertain the gold mine he’d stumbled upon. Since then, he’s acquired more of her photos and some of her personal effects: clothing, books, albums, cameras. The collection has grown to about 100,000 black and white negatives and 20-30,000 color slides taken from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Maloof set up this blog to showcase Maier’s photos, sought funding and partnerships, got a book deal, and is working on a documentary film. The project has turned into a full-time job, and consumes him almost entirely. He says he didn’t know what street photography was when he purchased her work. Now, he lives and breathes it.

And amazingly, most of Maier’s work is still unseen, including dozens of undeveloped rolls of film. But what is out there is pretty great — demonstrating a watchful eye, a sense of humor, and a thoughtful appreciation for the small details in life.

The first US exhibition of Maier’s photography is currently running at the Chicago Cultural Center through April 3rd.

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