What would you do if you stumbled upon the work of a talented artist, completely unrecognized in her lifetime? John Maloof bought a lot of photographic negatives at an auction. He hoped they would help him research Chicago neighborhood history. Instead he became the keeper and promoter of their photographer’s legacy. He tracked down her other work split between auctions and buyers, and he bought the majority. He used the random receipts, notes, and other papers boxed with her prints and negatives to find out her name–Vivan Maier–and to find those who thought they knew her. His documentary Finding Vivian Maier explores this art world sensation, a private person who mastered street photography, shared it with no one, and never elicited curiosity.
Maier often is compared to Emily Dickinson, yet that comparison only partially works. While both woman found fame posthumously, Emily submitted her poetry for publication, and some of it appeared in print during her lifetime, albeit in edited versions that removed her literary idiosyncrasies. She began corresponding with critic T. W. Higginson for writing advice. Even at her most reclusive, she maintained close friendships through her letters. They are intimate, emotional, and not the least bit guarded. We can read them because they were preserved by their recipients. Emily did not do the same. Near the end of her life, she asked her sister Lavinia to burn her papers. That was a common practice of their time. Lavinia complied, but stopped at the poetry. She then pursued publication of her sister’s work, which she and others accomplished.
Vivian Maier was not a recluse like Emily. She worked as a nanny, and she roamed the streets amongst people to photograph them. Her subjects ranged from the wealthy to the homeless, so she navigated through the nicer and rougher city areas, sometimes with her charges. Maier chose when to be out in the world and when she would lock the door to her room to it. People knew Maier took photographs, but they seemed to assume they weren’t of any import. She made no effort to promote or publish or show her work, and she left a lot of her film undeveloped in rolls. She showed no planning in what was to be done with her art. She left it disorganized in lockers, and she lost it when she could no longer afford storage fees. Maloof’s hope of historical treasure saved her work from the obscurity she had chosen for herself. Perhaps she would have hated that.