Death Notice: VIVIAN MAIER
Anonymous. Chicago Tribune [Chicago, Ill] 23 Apr 2009.
Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday.
Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her.
Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand.
Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire.
A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.
Memorial donations can be given to the Native American Heritage Association, P.O. Box 512, Rapid City, SD 57709.
Sign Guestbook at chicagotribune.com/obituaries
This is a paid death notice.
Vivian Maier died 5 years ago. Her obituary was likely written by the grown Gensberg brothers, who she used to nanny. They provided her with a place to live the last years of her life and cared for her as she cared for them in their youth. They also cared for the truckfuls of things that she accumulated and never let go of throughout her 83 years on this earth. Newspapers, clothes, and collections of seemingly-random bric-a-brac filled multiple storage lockers. When payment on a couple of those lockers lapsed in 2007 the contents were put up for auction. Maier would be dead less than 2 years later but that was when the Vivian Maier legend began.
Amongst the boxes and boxes of her effects were thousands of photographs, negatives, slides, and rolls and rolls of undeveloped film. In most cases, when there are no family members with attic space, such material ends up in the garbage or in junk shops. People die every day and the majority of their belongings are of no value to anyone. But we have a fascination with other people’s old things these days. TV shows from The Antiques Roadshow to Storage Wars exploit our need to find treasure in trash and to learn its history. Luckily for us, the people that ended up with Vivian Maier’s stuff were the curious kind.
The majority of her images that we’ve seen are portraits on city and suburban streets. Using a square-format Rolleiflex, she would come right up to her subjects and take their picture. Because the Rolleiflex is held at one’s chest, rather than up to the eye, she was able to get close to people without being intrusive. She’s been compared to all the great street photographers from Walker Evans to Gary Winogrand but the more of her work we see, there more we know she had her own eye. In a series of conversations, collectors Ron Slattery and Jeffrey Goldstein and photographer and investigative artist Pamela Bannos shared their insights into Maier’s work and life. John Maloof didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Photo collector Ron Slattery bought Maier materials at two auctions in 2007. Real estate broker John Maloof bought a box of her materials by absentee bid at one of those auctions as well. Artist and craftsman Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a significant collection in 2010. Between the three of them, they own the lion’s share of Maier’s images. Slattery has long been a collector of vernacular photography. Most of the images he posts on his website BigHappyFunhouse.com are anonymous snapshots he’s found at estate sales, flea markets and the like. Maloof has stated that he was looking for photos to illustrate a book about his Portage Park neighborhood he was co-authoring. Goldstein bought his collection once it was already known that the contents were something unusual and possibly lucrative. None of the three could’ve possibly imagined what they had.
Early on, Maloof turned to others for advice about what to do with his cache. He had no experience with photography and depended on people like Slattery for guidance. After he started selling some of his stock on eBay, noted photographer Allan Sekula reached out to tell him to stop, that he had something significant that needed to be professionally appraised. (Of course this wisdom was imparted after Sekula made a few purchases himself.) Once he became aware that there was money to be made, Maloof started buying up everything Maier-related that he could find. He located the Gensbergs and acquired boxfuls of her belongings. Clothes, newspaper clippings, audio tapes, 8mm films, prints, negatives, and many rolls of undeveloped film. As his collection grew and Vivian Maier became a bigger and bigger part of his life, the story of how he came to discover her work began to slowly change.
Slattery was the first to post one of Maier’s images online. It was in July 2008. Maloof followed early in 2009. But her work didn’t generate any significant interest until Maloof asked the Flickr community Hardcore Street Photography what to do with what he had. His post generated a conversation thread that now takes hours to read through. Many became captivated as details about the nanny who took thousands of photographs slowly spilled out. Maloof thanked Slattery publicly for his help initially but then edited out his name and much of his involvement. Maloof, who had no photographic or art-historical background whatsoever, was now a curator.
In America, owning something entitles one to do what one likes with it. Maloof has acquired around 90% of Maier’s images and has appointed himself her steward and explainer. The narrative that he has carefully constructed about the nanny-photographer-savant is captivating to many judging by the critical and popular success of his film Finding Vivian Maier, the two books he’s published, and the numerous exhibitions of original and posthumous prints put on from his collection. But does one man have the right to control a heretofore-unknown artist’s legacy simply by the act of owning the majority of her work? There is no doubt that anyone who has come to appreciate Maier’s photographs owes Maloof a debt of gratitude but the more we come to know about her story, the more obvious it becomes that her life was not quite like Maloof would like it to have been.
Finding Vivian Maier is set up like a mystery, with Maloof as our intrepid detective-guide. We peer over his shoulder at his attic office floor, covered in what looks to be a good chunk of Maier’s worldly possessions. We listen in as he talks with her now-grown former charges. We follow him to France where people who knew her during her time there reminisce. The histories of Maier and Maloof intertwine. One of the most compelling images in the film is not one of Maier’s photographs but a snapshot of a very young Maloof, happily looking out at us from a flea-market he’s at with his dad. He has so immersed himself that he purportedly said, “I am Vivian Maier,” at a recent screening Q & A. Whether he meant it in jest or not, it’s no surprise because she has certainly seemed to take over his life.
Jeffrey Goldstein has taken a very different tack. He prefers to stay behind the scenes and let the handsome gelatin silver prints he produces speak for him. Like Maloof, Goldstein devotes all his professional hours to Maier, but unlike Maloof, Goldstein has taken care to keep all the business in-house. His Rogers Park building is an efficient, one-stop Vivian Maier print shop. Goldstein allows the images from his collection to be used much more freely than Maloof. As a result, there have been many more exhibits in public institutions like the Chicago History Museum and the Harold Washington Library culled from his archive. The books Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows and Eye To Eye by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams benefit from his collaboartive approach.
Goldstein allows others to curate and edit as they see fit, once he grants them access to use the images he owns, whereas Maloof rarely grants access to projects he can’t control.
Ron Slattery has mostly stayed out of the limelight. An exhibition of some of his original prints was held at Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery in 2012 but unlike Maloof and Goldstein, he has so far stayed out of the posthumous prints business. Asked about his take on the Maier phenomenon, the word he uses over and over is amusement. A lifelong collector and master flea-market picker, he’s never seen anything generate the heat that Maier has in his whole career. He’s the only one of the three with substantive photography-related experience before involvement with Maier and prefers to stand back and see how it all shakes out. At least for now. Howard Greenberg Gallery—Maloof’s New York art dealer—recently asked around $15,000 for an original print. Slattery wonders aloud how high it will climb before her market bursts.
Photographer and Northwestern University professor Pamela Bannos got involved in the Maier story when she was asked to appear on a public television show as a photography expert. Originally asked to only provide background context, Bannos became fascinated and continued digging. She began constructing a Maier timeline based on when and where her photographs were taken. Goldstein has granted her full access to his archive, though they’ve since had their differences based on the direction her research has taken. Maloof has never cooperated with her. Despite her repeated requests, he refuses to even acknowledge her:
Artinfo: Has there been any academic interest in the work. Has anyone approached you about researching and studying the archive?
Maloof: Not really. There are some people who wanted to do a thesis, but not really. There are so many people who just want to have access to the archive, but there’s not an authority in photography who has contacted me and wanted to dive in and do some research. I would really like that.
(Blouin Artinfo, March 28th, 2014)
Unlike the mystery woman presented thus far to the general public, Bannos is interested in discovering and presenting a dedicated artist who did what she needed to do in order to continue practicing her craft. She calls her project—which she’s turning into a book—“The Fractured Archive”.
Because Maier left no will or instructions on what she wanted done with her work, her intentions—and the image of her presented to the outside world—are in the hands of anyone that takes an interest in her story. Bannos, Goldstein, and Slattery appear or are mentioned in the BBC documentary The Vivian Maier Mystery directed by Jill Nicholls. The film presents a much more even-handed picture than Maloof’s effort. Even Goldstein, who isn’t entirely thrilled with the way he comes off on screen, agrees that it’s a fuller portrayal of the story. Maloof didn’t take part because he was making his own version. More so than anyone involved, Vivian Maier has altered his life. He now considers himself a photographer and even a cursory look through his own website will reveal her indelible influence.
There has never been a discovery quite like Vivian Maier and there may never be one quite like her again. Everyone who happens upon it can find a piece or an angle that appeals or that they can identify with. The kind of privacy she kept to do her work may never be possible again in our over-surveilled age. To make a lifetime’s body of work and not share it with anyone is anathema to our times and that makes it that much more attractive. Why didn’t she show someone what she spent every free waking moment doing? Chicago photographer Rachel Freundt says, “She had what all photographers have, something called “the hungry eye”. Sometimes feeding the hungry eye is more about eating than digesting. A photographer just has to take photos, and it’s more about the act itself than viewing or even sharing the results. Some photographers I know wait a day or two to really look at their photos, and even then they might never put them on-line, or whatever form they share their photos.” But doesn’t the fact that she saved and stored those hundreds of thousands of images imply that she wanted others to see them in some way?
Artists’ lives have been romanticized, mythologized, and confabulated since time immemorial. They’re special, they’re crazy, they’re not like us. Whether putting them on a pedestal is an honor or simply a way not to have to share the thoroughfare or not allowing that the average person has all the same concerns, the idea that an artist is different seems sacrosanct. Throw in a proletarian day-job and some secrecy and what you have are the makings of a legend. Whatever your feelings about publicity, marketing, or hucksterism, most who have seen even a small sample of Maier’s output will agree that it is compelling enough to command attention. What we have thus far seen falls into two main categories: original prints (made during her lifetime) and posthumous prints (made by master printers hired by Maloof and Goldstein).
Most of the originals are small, 5×7 or 8×10 inches commonly. They were printed by Maier herself, often in the bathrooms of her residences, or by drugstores or other commercial printers. The quality varies but is rarely a master’s work. Maier’s strength was finding her subjects and shooting. Although she made many of her pictures with a Rolleiflex which produces a square negative, she often cropped the images she chose to print. There are thousands of examples. Usually, she would cut in as close as she could to her human subjects at the expense of the landscape or surroundings. Whether this enhanced or took away from her photos is a matter of taste but the fact that this cropping was an aesthetic choice can’t really be argued.
The posthumous prints are larger, usually 12×12 inches; gelatin silver prints on good paper and beautifully framed, there is no denying that these are blue-chip art objects. It’s doubtful that Maier would have allowed herself to splurge this way. By all accounts, she spent every spare cent on the next roll of film, chasing the next shot rather than revelling in what she already had. None of these new prints are cropped in any way either. Goldstein says that doing so would constitute making an aesthetic decision he wouldn’t be comfortable making. He is trying to stay as true to his source material as he can, but, since we know she cropped most of the images she printed, isn’t not doing so with these new prints an aesthetic decision by ommission?
The photo on the left is an original print from Slattery’s collection. The one on the right is a posthumous print from the same negative. You can see clearly that first is cropped on all four sides and that the second is crisper in detail and has a wider tonal range. Whichever one you prefer, there were choices made in presenting the finished image. One by the photographer that shot the film, the other by the collector who now owns the negative. So are all the beautiful new prints—by which many people know her work—solely that of Vivian Maier?
Since Maier left no will, the question of copyright has been hanging over Maloof’s and Goldstein’s heads. But after 3 ½ years of search and legal efforts they located a distant heir in France and paid him/her an undisclosed amount to hand over rights. They now control copyright for the vast majority of the images she produced.
Throughout the history of art there have been collaborations between artists and craftsmen. There are technical aspects in every medium that often call for expertise that the original creator of the work just doesn’t possess. It’s also not uncommon for prints to be made posthumously. But in most of those cases—aside from unscrupulous art dealers out for the quick buck—the artist’s wishes were always considered. This, among other things, is what makes the Maier case so difficult to untangle.
We have many more questions than answers at this point, but we’re only about 5 years into the story of a woman who photographed her world for 50 years and told no one about it. We have seen no photographs from the last 20 years of her life. Slattery, who has seen some of these, says her focus changed from the street scenes and portraits she’s best known for now to close-ups of roadkill and trash and a greater emphasis on the landscape. Such imagery doesn’t conform to the neat narrative of the nanny/photographer. Like any creative person, Maier’s interests changed over time.
Pamela Bannos will no doubt stitch together a portrait that includes this unmined late period of Maier’s. In the meantime, John Maloof, Jeffrey Goldstein, and Ron Slattery will continue to release photographs from their respective stashes as the market warrants. When asked what he’d like to see as an end-point to this whole business, Goldstein says he’d like to see a non-profit entity be established to take care of Vivian Maier’s legacy. For that to happen of course, the disparate parts of her archive would have to become whole again. If that happens, perhaps we’ll finally be able to piece together what this woman was trying to tell us with those hundreds of thousands of pictures.
Since this piece first ran in Spolia last summer the Vivian Maier story has continued to get curiouser and curiouser. Another heir has turned up, Jeffrey Goldstein—the collector with the second-biggest cache of Maier material—has sold his stock and gotten out of the business, John Maloof’s self-aggrandizing documentary has been nominated for an Oscar, and on and on and on. I have no doubt this story will continue to take weird turns and there will be no shortage of writers, hucksters and hangers-on who will attach themselves to it. But in the end we’ll likely never learn what Vivian Maier wanted done with all the images she captured for all those decades.