In 2007, 29 year old estate agent and eBay fanatic John Maloof bid on a dusty archive of negatives at an auction in Chicago. He was searching for some images of the city for a personal book project he was working on. He won the boxes, which were left unclaimed in a storage facility, for $400.
The images weren’t what Maloof was looking for, and initially he felt disappointed. But the negatives turned out to be much more intriguing and precious than anyone could have imagined. Maloof had become the unwitting custodian of the life’s work of Vivian Maier, a Chicago nanny and secretive amateur street photographer. Armed with a Leica box camera, Maier took stunning photos of daily life in Chicago from the 1950s until the late 90s. Whenever she had free time, she roamed the streets, photographing the dispossessed and the rich, capturing the joy and the misery, the absurdity and the drama of everyday life. From images of street children to fleeting moments of tenderness or violence, Maier recorded it all.
It would gradually become clear to Maloof that these were not simply images of mild historical interest. Maloof started to post the photos on his blog which soon garnered intense interest from photographers and art experts who claimed she was an undiscovered American great – on a par with Eve Arnold and Weegie in terms of flair and technical skill. Amazingly, in her lifetime, Maier had never shown her work to anybody. Perhaps she didn’t think it was any good. Perhaps she fantasised that she would be discovered one day. Sadly, by the time Maloof realised he was in the presence of greatness, she had died aged 83.
Born in France in 1926, Maier spent many years working as a nanny for rich families in an upmarket neighbourhood of Chicago, But it was her closely guarded ‘hobby’ that was her grand passion. As a photographer she was almost ridiculously prolific. Maloof is still only part of the way through the painstaking process of developing and scanning the 100,000 images in his possession, and there are still more in other archives. The sheer quality and size of Maier’s output is astonishing, and her images are extraordinary visions of ordinary life.
All images © 2011 Maloof Collection, Ltd. — All Rights Reserved