Historian Discovers Long-Lost Negatives of Secret Nanny-Photographer

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In 2007, a man named John Maloof purchased a chest full of negatives taken of Chicago in the 1960’s at a local auction house. Maloof, a real-estate-agent-turned-historian, was searching for authentic photographs to add to a book he was co-writing about the history of Chicago’s Northwest Side. He purchased the negatives for under $400, but what he got was the beginning of an adventure.

The negatives turned out to be revealing, one-of-a-kind time capsules. The artist responsible was a woman named Vivian Maier, nanny by day and street photographer by night. Maier worked as a nanny for over 40 years and meticulously captured the streets of Chicago, New York and many other cities all around the world during the second half of the 20th century. She died in 2009 with no family and no friends that could say they knew her well. Ever obscure and elusive, no one had ever seen Maier’s work until that faithful auction.

Maier never made much money as a nanny so when she reached old age, she was put up in a studio apartment by the sons of a family she had worked for from 1956 until the children reached adulthood in the Seventies. Due to lack of funds, most of her negatives were never developed and Maier collected her treasures in a storage unit for years until they were sold off for lack of payment. The negatives were auctioned off by the storage company who sold them in several fractions to several buyers, including John Maloof.

Once Maloof realized what he had come across, he spent a year trying to put back together Maier’s collection, which eventually included over 100,000 negatives, over 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, and much more. Maier’s work is a prestigious archive of mid-century street art and the art world is celebrating her contribution feverishly. Some might say it’s a travesty that Maier never received this recognition in life, but the families that knew her say she would have never welcomed it.

You can see more of her collection here or here. And look out for the documentary that details Maloof’s search and discovery, Finding Vivian Maier.

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Maier photographs herself in a mirror.

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Category: Photography