Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Vivian Dorothea Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009)

Vivian Dorothea Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer, who was born in New York City and spent much of her childhood in France. After returning to the United States, she worked for approximately forty years as a nanny in Chicago, Illinois. During those years, she took more than 150,000 photographs, primarily of people and architecture of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, although she traveled and photographed worldwide.

Maier's photographs remained unknown, and many of her films remained undeveloped, until her boxes of possessions were auctioned off. A Chicago historian and collector, John Maloof, examined the images and started to post Maier's photographs on the web in 2009, after Maier's death, Critical acclaim and interest in Maier's work quickly followed. Maier's photographs have been exhibited in the USA, Europe and Asia and have been featured in many articles throughout the world. Her life and work have been the subject of both books and documentary films

In 2007, two years before she died, Maier failed to keep up payments on storage space she had rented on Chicago's North Side. As a result, her negatives, prints, audio recordings, and 8mm film, were auctioned. Three photo collectors purchased parts of her work: John Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow. Maier's photographs were first published on the Internet in July 2008 by Slattery, but the work received little response.

Maloof had purchased the largest part of Maier's work, about 30,000 negatives, because he was working on a history book about the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park, Maloof subsequently purchased more of Maier's photographs from another buyer at the same auction. Maloof discovered Maier's name in his boxes, but was unable to find out anything about her until a Google search led him to Maier's death notice in the Chicago Tribune in April 2009. In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier's photographs on Flickr, and the results went "viral", with thousands of people expressing interest.

In the spring of 2010, Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a portion of the Maier collection from Prow, one of the original buyers. Since Goldstein's original purchase, his collection has grown to include 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides. Maloof, who runs the Maloof Collection, now owns 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, and ephemera including cameras and paperwork, which he claims represents roughly 90 per cent of her known work.

Since her posthumous discovery, Maier's photographs, and the way they were discovered, have received international attention in mainstream media, and her work has featured in gallery exhibitions, several books, and two documentary films.

Many details of Maier's life remain unknown. She was born in New York City, the daughter of a French mother, Maria Jaussaud, and an Austrian father, Charles Maier. Several times during her childhood she moved between the U.S. and France, living with her mother in the Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur near her mother's relations. Her father seems to have left the family temporarily for unknown reasons by 1930. In the 1930 census, the head of the household was listed Jeanne Bertrand, a successful photographer who knew Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1935, Vivian and her mother, Maria, were living in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur and prior to 1940 returned to New York. Her father and brother Charles stayed in New York. The family of Charles, Maria, Vivian and Charles were living in New York in 1940, where her father worked as a steam engineer.

In 1951, aged 25, Maier moved from France to New York, NY, where she worked in a sweatshop. She moved to the Chicago area's North Shore in 1956, where for approximately 40 years, Maier worked on and off as a nanny. For her first 17 years in Chicago, Maier worked for two families: the Gensburgs from 1956 to 1972, and the Raymonds from 1967 to 1973. Lane Gensburg later said of Maier, "She was like a real, live Mary Poppins," and said she never talked down to kids and was determined to show them the world outside their affluent suburb. The families that employed her described her as very private and reported that she spent her days off walking the streets of Chicago and taking photographs, usually with a Rolleiflex camera.

John Maloof, curator of some of Maier's photographs, summarizes the way the children she nannied would later describe her:

She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. ... She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn't show anyone.

In 1959 and 1960, Maier took a trip around the world on her own, photographing Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing, India, Syria, Egypt and Italy. The trip was probably financed by the sale of a family farm in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur. For a brief period in the 1970s, Maier worked as a nanny for Phil Donahue's children. She kept her belongings at her employers; at one, she had 200 boxes of materials. Most were photographs or negatives, but Maier also collected newspapers, and sometimes recorded audiotapes of conversations she had with people she photographed.

The Gensburg brothers, whom Maier had looked after as children, tried to help her as she became poorer in old age. When Maier was about to be evicted from a cheap apartment in the suburb of Cicero, the Gensburg brothers arranged for Maier to live in a better apartment on Sheridan Road, North Chicago. In November 2008, Maier fell on the ice and hit her head. She was take to hospital but failed to recover. In January 2009, Maier was transported to a nursing home in Highland Park, where she died on April 21, 2009.

Vivian Maier: mysterious and eccentric nanny who took stunning photographs
Documentary out this week tells remarkable story of Maier and the photographs she shot – and then deliberately kept secret
Mark Brown, arts correspondent

Vivian Maier was a mysterious and eccentric nanny who spent a lifetime looking after other people's children while harbouring a rather lovely secret: she was an astonishingly accomplished photographer.

The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday publishes rarely seen photographs by a woman now considered one of the finest street photographers of the 20th century.

A documentary film released on Friday will tell the remarkable story of Maier and the photographs she took – and then deliberately kept secret.

Maier is today considered a genius whose photographs stand comparison with names such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank.

But if it had not been for a chance discovery at a Chicago thrift auction in 2007, the world would still be unaware of her life and talents.

The discovery was made by a young former estate agent called John Maloof who was writing a history book on his Chicago neighbourhood.

He said: "I was wondering how I would find enough old photos to illustrate the book and tried my luck at a local junk and furniture auction house."

Maloof bought a box packed with about 30,000 negatives, which he did not use in the end.

"However, I knew to keep them. I thought: 'I'm resourceful. I'll look at them later when I have more time. Fast forward two years later, that purchase had unearthed some of the finest street photography of the 20th century."

Maloof set about finding out who Maier was, and decided also to make a film documenting his discoveries.

"My obsession drove us to compile a library of interviews and strange stories from across the globe. We found roughly 100 people who had contact with Vivian Maier. In the film we let people speak for themselves.

"I hope that this story comes through honest and pure, and does more than just uncover a mysterious artist but tells a story that changed the history of photography."

Maloof has made the film with Charlie Siskel, who produced Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine. The executive producer is Jeff Garlin, who has many credits but will be forever famous as Larry David's agent in eight seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Maier's day job for 40 years was as a nanny working for families in Chicago, often taking her charges out with her when she was taking photographs.

Because she had no permanent home, she kept all her negatives in a Chicago storage facility. She died in 2009, too early to know about the high regard she is held in today.

Siskel acknowledged that "if Vivian Maier had her choice the world would know nothing of her life and photographs. She chose to conceal herself and her art during her lifetime.

"But hiding one's art is, of course, the opposite of destroying it. Maier preserved her work and left its fate to others."

Since the discovery of Maier's talents she has become a phenomenon, with galleries selling her prints for upwards of $2,000 (£1,200).

There have been books, exhibitions and a BBC Imagine documentary which called her "a poet of suburbia" and a "Mary Poppins with a camera".

Siskel said Maier was "a kind of spy" capturing street life and "recording humanity as it appeared, wherever it appeared – in stockyards, slums and suburbia itself".

But she was also an outsider and Siskel believed she "may have secretly longed for the family bonds she witnessed intimately for decades".

He added: "Her work is now part of the history of photography and an undeniable treasure. The discovery of Maier's work not only gave her story an ending, there would be no story without it."

Finding Vivian Maier is released on Friday 18 July.

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