by Danny Stout
For more than 20 years, Vivian Dorothy Maier (1926 – 2009) worked as a nanny in a Chicago suburb. A medium-format Rolleiflex always in hand, she took thousands of photos left in boxes upon her death at 83. In perhaps the most compelling artistic story in the last decade, historian John Maloof purchased the photographs, researched Maier’s life, and uncovered what some consider the most compelling street photography in American history.
The work, which captures everyday life on Chicago sidewalks, has, according to Roberta Smith of the The New York Times, “an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.” Photographed faces of the young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad, are drawing audiences to galleries and shows by the thousands. The phenomenon is chronicled in the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. “My goal is to put Vivian in the history books,” Maloof asserts.
This has not been easy. Despite immense public interest, large museums such as MOMA snub Maier’s work on the basis that posthumous art is difficult to introduce. Such reactions are no longer relevant with demand transcending institutional validation. Lines form outside galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Germany. The Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and that of Jeffrey Goldstein in Chicago display and market the work.
The nagging question is did Maier intend for her work to be shown? She was a purist, some say; the sheer act of capturing the moment, that drove her. Others point to sporadic attempts to publish postcards. “Some people’s character prevents them from getting the work out. She just does the work,” says a photographer in the documentary. The film is ample pause for reflection about motivations in all professions. In pursuing wealth, approval or fame, have we lost sight of the Aristotelian notion of autotelics, or pursuing life for the sake of it. I asked my university students one day if they knew their college degree would be snatched away right before graduation, if they would they take all the classes anyway. Just for the love of learning. They cringed at such an absurdity, at least in their view. Nevertheless, the life of Vivian Meier begs the question, “Is our work more inspired when our intentions are pure?”
Unfortunately, her pristine legacy is becoming soiled by money seekers. Since the film, John Maloof is being sued by a Virginia lawyer representing a distant cousin in France for the possession of Maier’s collection. A retired businesswoman in New Jersey is doing the same, claiming the photographer’s brother is entitled. This, despite evidence that he died three years ago.
With everything tied up in the courts, Maloof maintains a website <http://www.vivianmaier.com> so the work can be enjoyed. A website on Flickr also exists. The posthumous legacy of Vivian Maier continues to unfold. The superb documentary unearths this fascinating story with balance and numerous interviews. Hopefully, the honorable work of John Maloof will move forward, and the world will enjoy the great artist that nearly wasn’t.