"Finding Vivian Maier": The Accidental Discovery of a Master Street Photographer

Friday, March 28, 2014

In 2007, amateur historian John Maloof purchased a box of negatives at a Chicago storage locker auction for $380. Those negatives turned out to be thousands of remarkable black-and-white street photographs taken by a woman named Vivian Maier. Maloof and Charlie Siskel tell her story in their film “Finding Vivian Maier,” 

After buying the negatives, Maloof realized that he couldn’t use them for the project he was working on, so he put them in a closet. Six months later, after starting to take pictures himself, he soon recognized Maier’s talent.

Vivian Maier’s work is now being recognized for her artistic sensibility and as a chronicle of the time she was living in. Siskel says, "She was documenting class issues and had a particular interest in the disenfranchised and the poor. But she was also interested in women’s fashion and architecture." People knew that Maier was taking photos, but Maloof says, "nobody knew that she was taking street photography." Siskel adds, "We had someone tell us that they thought there was no film in the camera."

The filmmakers found that Maier tried to have her work printed at least once, but was unsuccessful. "She was certainly shy and private and she probably feared rejection, as many artists do."

The family that took care of Maier at the end of her life found a receipt for a storage facility among her belongings. They kept paying for the unit after her death, but were getting ready to throw out its contents when Maloof found them. The storage unit was full with a "truck-load" of Maier’s books, receipts, and mail. Maloof says, "All I had to do was sift through it."

In addition to the more than 100,000 photographs that she took, Vivien had shot hours and hours of Super 8 footage and made radio documentaries. Siskel says, "She was kind of a self-appointed journalist without an audience – without listeners."

“Finding Vivian Maier” opens March 28 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier self-portrait from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s "Finding Vivian Maier."
Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
African American Man on Horse NYC still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s "Finding Vivian Maier."
Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Man being dragged by cops at night still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s "Finding Vivian Maier."
Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Woman at the NY Public Library still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s "Finding Vivian Maier."


John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

Comments [4]

George Dunbar from Toronto

An amazing discovery and story!

The documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier by Maloof & Siskel, is now in its 5th week on screens in Toronto.

Well-worth viewing.

Apr. 26 2014 04:22 PM

I find the narrative that keeps popping up in this story about her not bringing her art to market to be a bit disingenuous. Every time I hear it mentioned there is an implication that all she needed to do was print them and display them and the money and accolades would have come rolling in. That is a ludicrous assumption and one that belies the very reality of how art works, at least in this country.

Artists don't become sensations or well known or well paid simply by creating and displaying. They become those things based on who has access to their work, who supports or promotes their work, and on what kind of opportunities they either create, find, or are blessed with. She could have just as easily printed and displayed photos and found that no one engaged with them or cared about them. She was compelled to produce the work as many artists are, but trying to get people to care is a different animal entirely. I think it takes someone like these gentlemen who were engaged enough and interested enough to champion her work for her to truly become a viable artist in the way the narrative implies. Art, like most any other profession, is at least in part about who you know.

Mar. 30 2014 02:08 PM
Richard Haas

I remember those days quite well. 35mm cameras were fine for newspaper reproductions and 8X10 prints. View cameras 4X5, 5X7 8X10 were obviously to bulky and slow for street photography in comparison. Medium format film and cameras were chosen primarily if you wanted to make larger prints or thought you might have to crop more than usual, to retain detail. The square aspect ration let you chose later vertical or horizontal for the print. The camera of choice was the Hasselblad for 120mm size film. A Rolleiflex was much more affordable and lighter. And don't underestimate the weight decision. I remember ALWAYS carrying a camera around 24 hours a day. I am surprised that the aspect of shooting people from slightly below and looking up at them was not mentioned. Makes them more "important" looking.

Mar. 30 2014 07:40 AM
Alen MacWeeney from New York

She used a Rolleiflex as a majority of women photographers did at that time as the square format lent itself more to portraits and considered images, than on the fly aggressive photographs done with a Leica or similar by men usually.

Mar. 28 2014 01:17 PM

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