D. R. Martin & Richard Audry Books

The Mystery of Vivian Maier


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.

1968 First Street


Author: drmar120

D. R. Martin is a writer and photographer based in Minnesota.

3 thoughts on “The Mystery of Vivian Maier

  1. Hi D.R.,

    I’m entranced by Vivian Maier. Missed her exhibit in town but saw one at Chicago Historical Society last year. Also the wonderful film. Thanks for reminding me and for your shot from that the fateful year.

    Saw your letter to the Editor, too. I’ve written a few lately, but my hair’s always on fire so am sure editors think I’m a crazy.

    Here’s my latest book…..this one with words, written over many years.


    Hi to Sue. Hope this weather lasts. Fall’s coming fast!

    Best, Sandy

  2. Hi there sir.a friend of mine sent me this link.The picture of the blond and the man with the slight smile is my dad.I sent my brothers and sisters your link.they all were very delighted by the picture.my dad would have been tickeled.but he passed 12 years ago.but all his kids are.13 in all.ty sir.made our day.

    • Todd, you made my day, as well. Thanks so much for getting in touch. I’ve always gotten a kick out of your dad’s expression. Figured he was thinking, “This young guy with the camera’s making a move on the cute blonde.” Glad all your siblings (13 of you! Wow!) enjoyed it, too.

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