Vivian Maier: The Secret Photographer Gets A Retrospective In Amsterdam

When documentary filmmaker John Maloof bought his first box of Vivian Maier negatives, he had no idea who the photographer was – in fact neither did anyone else. It was 2007, and Maloof was just a 20-something guy who knew very little about photography but sometimes frequented flea markets and auctions in search of subject matter. From information received Maloof knew the pictures were the work of a certain Vivian Maier, but searching for any history of ‘Maier the photographer’ was to no avail,as she had never achieved any kind of professional success.

Two years later, after posting some of the Maier’s work online and getting an unrestrained euphoric reaction en masse, he tried looking for Maier’s history again. This time, the filmmaker found an obituary, posted only a few weeks earlier – he had missed Maier’s life by a hair’s breadth – Malooof embarked at once on a journey of discovery into the life of this unknown but obviously talented individual – a journey that led to a very emotive and successful documentary on the then unknown street photographer.

Eventually John Maloof, and a collector Jeffrey Goldstein came to own virtually all of the mysterious photographer’s work. The two tracked down Maier’s heir and paid the copyrights to the photos, and then began to promote and sell the work; until a lawyer and photographer named David C. Deal began to challenge them in court, claiming that he had located a closer heir that was the rightful owner of the copyright.

Goldstein then decided to sell his negatives to Stephen Bulger rather than face the legal fees of a potentially drawn out case. “In the end Jeffrey sort of thought that these negatives are a liability,” Bulger tells StreetShootr. “As it stands he can’t really do anything with them.” The deal occurred on December 17th, 2014, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery is now in possession of the negatives. The sale involved approximately 17,500 photographic negatives representing about 15% of the entire known Maier collection.

Now the same legal handcuffs have prevented the Stephen Bulgar Gallery from any action until the copyright issues are resolved, 15% of Maier’s work will now be hidden away in a museum-quality storage facility and out of public view. So it might seem fortunate after the protracted legal dealings surrounding the newly discovered documentary photographer, that there is actually a retrospective of Maier’s work taking place in the Netherlands.

‘Vivian Maier, Street Photographer’ is a retrospective exhibition featuring the work of the female street photographer at the Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam. As stated; the photographer’s impressive oeuvre was only discovered at the end of her life. Vivian Maier (New York, 1926 – 2009) worked as a professional nanny throughout her life. In her free time, she documented life in large American cities such as New York and Chicago, although no one in her immediate circle ever saw the results.

Maier left behind an imposing body of work, consisting of 100,000 negatives. Its quality can be compared to that of famed contemporaries like Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, Elliot Erwitt and Garry Winogrand. Besides photos, she also made countless motion pictures and audio recordings. The exhibition at Foam contains photographic work from the 1950s to 1980s in both black-and-white and colour, as well as films.

Maier was an extremely intelligent, curious free spirit – if rather eccentric and solitary. She documented all that caught her attention, in photos as well as sound and motion pictures. On the street she was fairly inconspicuous: she wore a hat, a long dress, a woollen coat and men’s shoes, and she never left the house without a camera around her neck.

The secret documentary photographer remained single all her life and never had children of her own, but instead cared for the children she was looking after professionally in her capacity as a nanny as if they where her own. The Gensburg’s, a well-to-do Chicago family, who Maier worked for and subsequently moved in with in 1956, gave the photographer her own bathroom, which became the Maier’s first darkroom.

Her photographic work, at first predominately black-and-white, focused on societal subjects: street life, the disadvantaged and emigrants. But once the children grew up, in the 1970s, Maier was forced to seek work with other families, and lost access to her darkroom; she was then no longer able to develop her own film and her exposed film rolls began to pile up – undeveloped as she continued to document the street.

In the 1980s financial problems led to developments that made Maier’s photography more difficult. Finding herself with no fixed abode caused the photographer’s rolls of film to continue to be undeveloped. Then during the late 1990s, Maier put down her camera for good, and her possessions were placed in storage while she tried to keep her head above financial water. In response to her situation, the Glensburg children arranged a small studio for her, saving her from becoming homeless. The photo archive fell into oblivion, however, until it was finally auctioned off for non-payment in 2007.

The archive was sold in multiple lots to various parties – and eventually John Maloof came to possess a great deal of the work. Only after he had the work further investigated did its remarkable quality become apparent. In 2008 Maier suffered a fall on the ice in Chicago and died in April 2009. She left behind an immense photographic archive – that now remains in contention due to its newly realised value.

After a lifetime in domestic servitude, secretly documenting the streets of America through 100,000 photographs, Maier had died in great old-age, and in poverty – just on the edge of global recognition – never to know that her work would even receive a glimmer of praise, or understanding.

‘Vivian Maier, Street Photographer’ is an exhibition based on the material that John Maloof came to own – and is on display at the Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam until 1 February 2015.

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