March 13, 2011

From behind the lens, she depicted a world

A Chicago nanny who took thousands of photos in her spare time is lauded posthumously as an artist.

By SHARON COHEN The Associated Press

CHICAGO - She scoured the streets day and night, venturing into strange and sometimes dicey neighborhoods. She wore a hat, sturdy shoes and a camera, always a camera, around her neck and at the ready.

Vivian Maier
click image to enlarge

This is an undated and untitled self-portrait of Vivian Maier.

AP/Maloof Collection/Vivian Maier

SEE SOME of Vivian Maier's work at www.vivianmaier.com and www.vivianmaierprints.com.

A woman in a white fur stole and evening dress drifting in the darkness toward a '56 two-tone Chevy.

Click.

A curious little boy, undaunted by his size, using an empty window frame as a ladder so he can peek into a giant box.

Click.

A huddled coil of a man defeated by life, his clothes soiled and tattered, his head hanging in despair.

Click.

Fractions of seconds, captured by Vivian Maier a half-century ago or more.

Maier observed it all without judgment. This was her hobby, not her job. But over five decades, it also was her life. She shot tens of thousands of photos. Most were never printed. Many weren't even developed. And few were seen by anyone but her.

Vivian Maier guarded her privacy so zealously that she didn't even want people to know her full name.

She and her photos seemed destined for obscurity until a young man paid an auction house about $400 for a huge grocery box stuffed with tens of thousands of negatives.

He knew only that they came from a repossessed storage locker that had been rented by an elderly woman.

He didn't expect much -- maybe just some illustrations for a history book he was co-writing about his Northwest Side neighborhood. He didn't find any.

But he did unearth a far bigger treasure.

John Maloof had stumbled upon an undiscovered artist whose photography is now being compared to the giants, a reclusive woman who, in death, is attracting the kind of acclaim she would have shunned in life.

ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY

Maloof knew nothing about photography -- he was a real estate agent -- but when he started scanning some of the negatives in his computer, even a novice could see they were special:

Striking scenes of every crane and every beam as Chicago's John Hancock skyscraper went up. Captivating cityscapes of the elevated tracks in New York.

Maloof wanted to meet Maier, but someone at the auction house said she was ill. And he didn't press.

Instead, Maloof decided to collect as much of her work as he could find. He contacted folks who'd bought Maier's other possessions at the auction that day in late 2007. Soon, he owned 1,000 rolls of her film. But it would be expensive developing them all.

So Maloof peddled about 100 negatives on eBay to raise cash. Some went for $5. Others for $12. One for $80.

One buyer happened to be Allan Sekula, a prominent photographer, critic and teacher. He offered some advice: Stop selling the negatives. The work was good enough for an exhibition and shouldn't be dispersed.

Maloof set out to learn more about Vivian Maier. His first Google searches had fizzled, but in April 2009, he spotted her name scrawled on the envelope of a roll of developed film. He tried again.

This time, he found an obituary in the Chicago Tribune.

Vivian Maier had died just days earlier.

"Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully. ... A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. ... Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. ..."

Her 83 years on earth, summed up in 96 words. But one sentence stood out: "Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew." Maloof wondered. Perhaps she was their stepmother?

Maloof called the Tribune, but soon ran into some dead ends.

(Continued on page 2)

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