The documentary about Vivian Maier by John Maloof is opening this week in the USA. Read my review of his talk at the LSPF in 2011:
Emma Mapp reports from John Maloof’s fascinating talk at the National Portrait Gallery about his discovery of Vivian Maier and her incredible archive:
Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call our exhibition ‘A Life partially Uncovered’. Little did John know that when he purchased a job lot of negatives from a Chicago auction house for a book he was writing about a local park, that he was about to embark on a journey that would change his life forever.
Initially, Maier’s architectural photographs caught John’s eye and he became inspired to recreate the scenes that she had captured around the city of Chicago. John slowly became interested in photography, started to develop his own film (including some of Maier’s photographs and he used the notes she made for her printers as a guide) and eventually completed a Masters in photography. The rest, they say, is history.
How many photographs are there?
Thousands! John went back and purchased the remaining boxes of negatives at the auction house and estimates that he has only developed/scanned 10% of the contents. There are bins and bins of undeveloped black & white film, colour film and slides. Maier also made interviews of people on 8mm film, so John and his army of volunteers have a mammoth but poignant task ahead of them cataloguing and developing all of the material.
What was she like?
She was an intensely private person and became a prolific hoarder during her life, leaving boxes of newspaper clippings, books and strange objects that she collected throughout her life – for example, railroad spikes! One family she stayed with had to have the floor of her room (which was always padlocked by her to protect her privacy) reinforced because the weight of all her things threatened to weaken the floor. Save from some personal effects of clothing , hats and her cameras (Box Brownie, Rolleiflex and Leica), no diaries or letters have been found to provide us with an insight into her personality or emotional intelligence. We know that she was well travelled but she always travelled alone and often left on her travels at a moment’s notice and was sometimes gone for months on end. It is still possible that people that she encountered on her travels will get in touch with John to recount some anecdotes and provide further information.
It is rumoured that she didn’t like having her picture taken and would hit photographers with her umbrella if they dared to photograph her!
Who were her influences?
It is difficult to say but it is possible that she was influenced by Jeanne J Bertrand because Maier and her mother stayed with the photographer when Maier was a young girl. There is also a similarity between Maier and Lisette Model, an Austrian-born American photographer but one thing is for sure, Maier is now an influence on photographers across the globe, inspiring people to see the beauty in their immediate environment. This inspiration is not only significant in terms of making photography accessible to everyone but it is also an important documentation of social history.
So, did John Maloof discover Vivian Maier or did Vivian Maier discover John Maloof? We think they both found each other and the best is yet to be revealed.