When I find myself elbow-deep in the crate of vintage brooches at my neighborhood flea market, I often lose sight of the fact that the history of these objects is more than patina. There are stories in these fingerprints, there is a legacy in this precipitate. When real estate agent John Maloof bought a box of negatives at a furniture and antique auction on the North Side of Chicago three years ago, he considered the acquisition potential material for a book he was working on. Once he began scanning, he realized that he had instead stumbled upon the trove of perhaps one of the greatest street photographers of the mid-20th century. Maloof discovered that this wealth of work came from Vivian Maier, a nanny who worked in Chicago from the 1960s into the ’90s, a woman who was known to be private, reserved, and never without her camera.
Maloof quickly obtained over 100,000 negatives of Maier’s work, some 20-30,000 still in undeveloped rolls. Posting to street photography blogs, the response was immense. Shots of children in the park, mothers at the beach, working men on cigarette breaks — the photographs are evocative, penetrating, and unexpected.
Putting in long hours scanning, contacting museums, and sharing the Maier collection, Maloof believes he is revealing a lost legend. When Chicago Tonight pressed whether Maier would approve of the public exposure, Maloof shared an audio recording from one of her trunks in which she speculates, “Well I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on. And somebody else takes their place.” Maloof feels Maier’s legacy bleeding beyond the film cells — he has since bought her same camera and has taken to the streets, exploring for himself the complexity of her form.
Maloof and his partner, Anthony Rydzon, are now embarking on developing Maier’s story into a documentary, determined to unearth the legacy of this overlooked master. You can find more information about the project on their Kickstarter page. If you’re feeling inspired, you have until March 14 to pledge your support! For me, the Maier collection represents not only a stirring artistic archive, but also the immense potential of that unopened trunk.
What’s been your greatest vintage find? Share in the comments.