A box of photographic negatives bought at auction reveals a treasure trove of American street photography and puts John Maloof, one of our guests tonight, on the trail of the mysterious nanny who snapped over 100,000 images. Aided by the internet and social media, as well as dedicated detective work, he uncovered the spotty history of Vivian Maier. Thanks to him this nanny would become a celebrated photographer.
Maloof bought the box of negatives hoping to find photos he could use in a book he was writing about his Chicago neighborhood. None of the images were right, and he stashed the box away, until curiosity got the better of him.
What he saw was astounding–beautiful images, poignant, strong, historical–and he began to delve deeper. Google revealed that Vivian Maier had died just months earlier. A further search revealed an address, which lead to a family that had employed Maier as a nanny and had been paying for the storage of her boxes. Maloof was invited to take whatever he wanted as the storage unit was being cleaned out. He brought back trunks and boxes, finding even more photos, as well as many, many, items that Vivian, a pack-rat/hoarder, had saved over the decades.
Maloof scanned about 200 negatives and posted the images online where they became popular and talked about. Overwhelmed by the daunting task of handling tens of thousands of images, he approached–and was rejected by–museums. And as he went through her boxes, he began to piece together her life–Maier had worked as a nanny and one of her clients was talk show host Phil Donahue. He discovered more families and gradually uncovered the trajectory of her life.
Determined to champion the mysterious Maier, Maloof launched a photo exhibit of her work. And with filmmaker Charlie Siskel, also a guest tonight, began documenting his search into Maier’s history. What he discovered is at times disturbing, sad, and thought-provoking. Who are the people we hire to help us? What are their private lives, their secrets?
Using Maier’s images and interviews with people who knew her, Maloof and Siskel have created a poignant tribute to an intensely private person, raising questions about how many great artists are still undiscovered, as well as about the mental health support systems in the U.S., and what becomes of all of us as we age and then die.