Street Photography of Vivian Maier

One of the best pieces of non-fiction writing is Lawrence Weschler’s “Shapinsky’s Karma.” Originally written for The New Yorker in 1985, the story follows the path of Akumal Ramachander, a schoolteacher from Bangalore, India, who devotes his life to building awareness for Harold Shapinsky, then a 60-year-old painter living in poverty in New York City.

“Abstract Expressionist painter, generation of de Kooning and Rothko, an undiscovered marvel, an absolute genius, completely unknown, utterly unappreciated. He lives here in New York City, with his wife, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, where he continues to paint, as he has been doing for over forty years, like an angel,” Ramachander tells Weschler. “You must visit this Shapinsky fellow. He's a true find, a major discovery. It is my destiny to bring him to the attention of the world.”

Ramachander travels the world, meets with museum and gallery directors in Europe and the United States, and eventually lands Shapinsky a show in 1985 at the Mayor Gallery in London, where, according to The New York Times, 19 of the 22 paintings sell for prices between $12,000 and $30,000.

I didn’t think there would be another story quite like that one, until I read about Vivian Maier, whose street photographs went on display at the Chicago Cultural Center. The exhibition, “Finding Vivian Maier,” runs through April 3, but it’s the story of how her photographs were discovered that’s captured everyone’s attention.

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Maier was born in 1926 and spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, taking photos in and around the city on her days off with a Rolleflex twin-lens reflex camera, shooting 120 film. She was a reclusive woman and never showed anyone her photographs, which she kept in big boxes that she lugged around from one employer’s house to the next, until she eventually packed them away in a storage facility, where they remained until 2007.

Vivian Maier Quick Facts

  • Lived in France at one time
  • Photographs have appeared in Newspapers around the world
  • Maier traveled to Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, Italy
  • Was rumored to be homeless toward the end of her life


When the payments to the storage facility lapsed, the photographs were put up for auction, and purchased by John Maloof, a real-estate agent.


“I didn't know what ‘street photography’ was when I purchased them,” Maloof wrote on his blog. But as he went through the negatives, scanning them onto his computer, he was taken back by the quality of the images, and eventually he realized the enormity of his find.  

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“I bought her same camera and took to the same streets soon to realize how difficult it was to make images of her caliber,” he said. “I discovered the eye she had for photography through my own practice.”Maloof says he did not know the identity of the photographer until finding her name on a photo lab envelope in 2009 – two weeks after she died in relative obscurity at the age of 83. But now he devotes his days scanning the negatives – he is only about a quarter of the way through – and advancing her legacy. The exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center is only the beginning. Maloof has also started raising funds to make a documentary on Maier’s life.

I owe Vivian an honest effort to get her recognized as one of the great photographers of her time

“I owe Vivian an honest effort to get her recognized as one of the great photographers of her time,” Maloof told Chicago magazine. “I’m only spending time on her story because the world is demanding it from me. The more I learn about Vivian, the more fascinated I am about this woman. She was a singular person, extremely intelligent, and her talent was extraordinary. I get great satisfaction in sharing it with the world.”

Echoes of Akumal Ramachander.
 

Follow Richard S. Chang on Twitter: @r_s_c

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