The Man Who Introduced The World To Vivian Maier

I had scheduled a meeting with John Maloof today, but the snow here in Chicago has been falling for most of the night, and when I woke up to the blanket of white outside my 15th floor window, I knew that we were not going to be able to meet in person…so Skype it was!
John Maloof was at the top of my list of people to meet with here in Chicago. For me, as for many, it was the Finding Vivian Maier documentary, directed by Maloof, that first brought her photographs to my attention.

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“Finding Vivian Maier is the critically acclaimed documentary about a mysterious nanny, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage lockers and, discovered decades later, is now among the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Maier’s strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her.”
So much has been written about Vivian Maier‘s secretive world of photography that it is no longer the main focus of what I want to speak to John about. I’m most interested in the responsibility that comes with discovering a body of work like Maier’s and how those who bring the work to the attention of the world after an artist has passed away have, both an ethical and a practical burden placed upon them, often unwittingly.

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In this vein, other parallels include the discovery, by Henry Darger’s landlord after his death in 1973, of Darger’s fantastical world of the Story of the Vivian Girls; or Marian Harris who bought the pieces of Morton Bartlett’s world and pieced his dolls together for the world to see.

I asked John Maloof how he feels about his relationship with Maier and her work, ten years after he bought the first box of Maier’s negatives and ephemera: “I feel as if I have a moral responsibility to Vivian and her work and to make sure her work is represented by the best gallery and that we work with the best publisher.”
With the exception of around 10% of her known output, which is now in private hands, Maloof has been able to keep Maier’s body of work together: “Looking at Vivian’s work over time, you can see her street photography technique develops from still, composed shots to capturing people in motion in a much quicker, more sophisticated way. You can also see how she became compulsive about taking pictures of particular subjects like taking photographs of newspaper headlines and newspaper stands. This was probably her way of documenting what was important or interesting to her at the time, just like us taking screen shots of things we want to remember on our phones now.”


Maloof also describes how looking at Maier’s work chronologically shows her work becoming more abstract over time, as well as moving from black and white to colour film photography.

I asked John Maloof about the myth that Vivian Maier never developed any of her photographs in her own life time: “Its just not true. Vivian did develop some of her photographs and she did it herself, although she didn’t actually share the pictures with anyone. One of the most remarkable things for me as an artists and photographer is knowing that Vivian carried on her practice for over 50 years without feedback or encouragement. She did visit other people’s exhibitions and was widely read, but she didn’t get feedback on her work from other photographer, yet continued her work.”

Now, over a decade after Vivian Maier entered John’s life, we talk about where he’s at. “I now have a not-for-profit gallery here in Chicago that champions the work of emerging artists. The artists receive 100% of their sales, although it’s always nice when they do give some money to the gallery to enable others to show their work too.”

I’m also really interested to hear that since discovering Maier’s work, John has started to take his own photographs, using a black and white Rolleiflex, just as Vivian did. He tells me how taking his own photographs has shown him just how difficult good street photography is, but has also given him an increased appreciation for Maier and her work.