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A developing picture: The story of Vivian Maier

With her camerhas usual Vivian Maier shot this self-portrait reflecticity window.

With her camera in hand as usual, Vivian Maier shot this self-portrait in the reflection of a city window.

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‘Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer’

When: Jan. 7 to April 3

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph

Information: (312) 744-6630; chicagoculturalcenter.org

"Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer"
Blog: Vivian Maier - Her Discovered Work
Video: More on Maier's life
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When John Maloof bid on a box of old photo negatives at an estate auction in 2007, little did he know he was stepping deep into the mystery of Vivian Maier.

Maloof, then a real estate agent, was looking for images to use in a book about the history of the Portage Park neighborhood. Instead, what he found were 30,000 images by Maier, who spent much of her time wandering Chicago and the world as a street photographer with a keen eye for capturing compelling images.

Since then, Maloof has amassed an archive of Maier’s life and work. Stashed in the attic studio of his Portage Park home are her cameras, 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and 100,000 negatives, as well as many 8mm movies and audiotapes. Stacks of old suitcases, a steamer trunk of clothes and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings are stacked against one wall.

On a recent weekday morning, Maloof stood in the midst of it all and looked around. He knows he’s on the verge of something pretty cool, and it came about by pure luck.

“When I bought all this, I had no idea what it was,” Maloof said. “I’m a third-generation flea market seller and could have easily just sold it all to someone else.”

Maier’s photographs and life story are gaining attention, including at the Chicago Cultural Center, where the exhibit “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer” opens Friday.

“There weren’t many women doing street photography in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Lanny Silverman, chief curator at the Cultural Center. “So this is very interesting and noteworthy. Beyond just the story of her life, I think she’s quite a good photographer.”

Maloof and his longtime friend Anthony Rydzon are co-directing a documentary about Maier. A book, due out later this year, also is in the works. For some time now, they’ve been stitching together the details of Maier’s life and trying to fill in the blanks.

Sifting through the negatives in 2009, Maloof found Maier’s name on an envelope and Googled it. What he found was an obit. Astonishingly, it was dated just a few days earlier.

But even more surprisingly, there was no mention of her photography.

“I was shocked,” Maloof, 29, said. “Ever since then I’ve been trying to find out more about her.”

The details of Maier’s life are slowly lining up, according to Maloof. They’ve contacted several local families that employed her as a nanny and talked with employees of Central Camera, where she had film developed. But as of now no direct relatives have turned up.

Maier was born in 1926 in New York and spent much of her childhood in France. In 1951, she returned to New York and in 1956 came to Chicago to work as a nanny for a North Shore family. Maier, who was a private person by all accounts and a bit of a character, always had a Rolleiflex camera around her neck. She dressed in oversize coats, broad-brimmed hats and stout shoes.

“First thing in the morning on her day off, the camera would be around her neck, and we wouldn’t see her again until late at night,” said Maren Baylaender, whose husband employed Maier to care for his disabled daughter. “I remember her as a private person but one who had very strong opinions about movies and politics.”

Maier was a theater and movie buff. She was a hoarder and a bit of a recluse, but she wasn’t afraid to walk the street with her camera and engage people, some of whom she interviewed on audiotape. She seems to have been somewhat obsessed with her “second job,” documenting the world around her.

“She was a true artist and followed her dreams and what she wanted to do in life,” said Rydzon, 31. “She didn’t let anyone or anything stop her.”

Maier’s work is the purest form of art; none of it was done for any commercial reason. Her images lean toward women, children, the old, the poor, the abstract.

“What is intriguing about Vivian is that there are so many interesting pictures,” Silverman said.

Silverman sees influences in her pictures ranging from the abstracts reminiscent of Institute of Design greats Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind to the styles of Diane Arbus, Lisette Model and Helen Levitt, and he wonders: “Was Vivian very sophisticated and able to do this or was she a tasteful lifter of those who came before her?”

At one point, Maier spent nearly a year traveling around the world to exotic and out-of-the-way destinations with her camera as her only companion. Another mystery is how she could afford such a trip. There is some evidence of an inheritance, Rydzon says.

Maloof and Rydzon are looking for the answer to these and many other questions about Maier’s life and work. The results of their detective work will be unveiled in the book and documentary film “Finding Vivian Maier.” They are raising funds for the film on kickstarter.com (search for Vivian Maier). As Maloof scans in more of her photos, he posts them at vivianmaier.com.

But Maloof often wonders if he’ll ever work his way through all the negatives, which he has stored in three tall, fireproof file cabinets. The funny thing is he had no real interest in photography until he discovered Maier’s work. Inspired by her architectural shots, Maloof actually went out on the street and began to take his own pictures.

“As I progressed as a photographer and went back and visited her work, I realized the cityscapes were not what was important to her. It’s the people, the street scenes, the overall composition,” he said. “There was so much more to this work than I thought, and I realized that I was sitting on something more important than I ever imagined. Now our goal is to get her name out there. To get Vivian Maier into the history books.”



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