A few years ago a Chicago photography collector named John Maloof was at an auction of goods that had been abandoned in storage facilities. As he explored through all the junk and boxes, he found one lot that interested him—about 100,000 negatives and many rolls of undeveloped film. He bid $500 and won. What he ended up with was an incredible treasure trove of American street photography. If no one had bid on it, its next stop might have been the landfill.
It was all created over the course of four or five decades by Vivian Maier, whose day job was a nanny for well-to-do families in cities such as Chicago, New York, and L. A. Her work was stunningly good—worthy of comparison with great names like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, and Weegee. And until Maloof and a couple of other collectors discovered it, no one ever knew that it existed. Because Maier—who clearly suffered from some sort of OCD—had never let anyone see it. As one of her employers said about her, she would have been mortified at the discovery of her work, at the idea that others could see her photography.
The documentary Finding Vivian Maier tells Maier and Maloof’s stories and shows a broad cross-section of her striking street photography. You can see a trailer for the film here. And the story is far from over. A distant relation of Maier’s has claimed ownership of copyright of all of her work. (In the U.S. you can own a negative, but the copyright belongs to its creator or its creator’s estate.) So for now, her work is tied up in the courts.
Finding Vivian Maier struck a particular chord with me because in my high school and college days I was a dogged street shooter myself. My output was much smaller—only five or six thousand negatives. And instead of the vivid, in-your-face style that Maier cultivated (think Arbus and Frank), my inspiration was the more austere and abstract approach of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Street photography has been on my mind. I’m in the process of getting a few hundred of my shots into high-res digital files, so I can produce high-quality prints as I need them. Here’s a shot from my first autumn on the streets: First Street, Duluth, 1968.