Genius in a Storage Locker: The Story Behind 'Finding Vivian Maier'

Finding Vivian Maier Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Finding Vivian Maier Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Director John Maloof shares his journey to unravel the mystery of an anonymous photographer -- now considered one of the greatest of the modern era -- that he discovered totally by accident.

In 2007, historian John Maloof needed photographs for a book he was working on about the Portage Park neighborhood in Chicago, so he went to a storage locker auction and for $380 bought the biggest box of undeveloped negatives he could find. All he knew was that there were tens of thousands of negatives, some of Chicago, and that the locker belonged to a Vivian Maier. When he got home, he was disappointed to find nothing in the box he could use, so he threw it into his attic and forgot about it.

“You have to keep in mind that in the resell business this is not uncommon, to find someone's negatives,” Maloof explains to The Hollywood Reporter. “I was just at [an estate sale] two weeks ago where they were selling slides of the owner, which I bought just on impulse because they were 10 bucks. It's not like you are looking at this stuff and thinking, this has to be amazing work and I have to pay attention to every single photo.”

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About a year later, he returned to the photographs and started to notice they were of a quality not normally found among amateur collections. In her 100,000-plus photographs of New York and Chicago street life, Maier displayed an uncanny eye for capturing the remarkable in the everyday, finding worthy subjects for her portraiture at every socieconomic level. In Maloof's words, "elderly folk congregating in Chicago's Old Polish Downtown, garishly dressed dowagers, and the urban African-American experience were all fair game for Maier’s lens." Not knowing what to do with the photos, Maloof scanned the negatives of some of his favorites and created a blog. Maloof then turned to the Hardcore Street Photography (HCSP) community -- a Flickr group of candid photo enthusiasts -- by posting a link to his blog and asking for guidance. 

The HCSP discussion thread still exists and reading through it is a reminder of just how quickly an online community can gather around something special. Maloof was inspired to search out and purchase another 60,000 additional photographs taken by Maier. He also applied for a show at the Chicago Cultural Center, where he procured for Maier’s work a proper exhibition. This show and Flickr discussion thread triggered a flood of press (including pieces in The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and American Photo) and within a short amount of time comparisons between Maier and legendary photographers were becoming commonplace. Maloof, meanwhile, found himself the owner of one of the hottest collections in the art world.  

But Maloof still knew little about Maier. Armed with only a few notes with phone numbers that he found in the box of negatives, he set out to learn something about the woman behind the camera. As he started to reach out to the families who had employed her as a live-in nanny, Maloof was surprised just how little anyone knew of the extremely private woman. He even started to wonder if she would have wanted him to share her work with the world.

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“Because there were so many unknowns and there some many people that had unknowns, that really intrigued me,” recalls Maloof. “Why is this person doing all this work and not showing anybody? Why does nobody know about her past?”

Maier’s work had already turned Maloof into an art collector and archivist, but the mystery of her life set into motion a journey in which Maloof became detective and documentary filmmaker. Finding Vivian Maier chronicles his attempt to tell the story of the anonymous street photographer who rocked the art world and changed his life. The result is a revealing and surprising portrait of a very eccentric woman, who practically lived like an undercover spy, and the young filmmaker and art collector who openly struggles in front of the camera, wondering if he is doing what Vivian would have wanted.

The documentary is likely only to further add to the rapidly growing legend of Maier and increase interest in her work. But Maloof becomes instantly defensive at the mere suggestion that the documentary might benefit his art business.

REVIEW: 'Finding Vivian Maier'

“It's not a business, it's a responsibility,” says Maloof. “I have the responsibility to make sure her work is taken care of. I would never call it a business. There's a side of it that the gallery has to represent her so we can afford to do anything financially with the archive.”

It is an enormous archive, estimated to be over 100,000 photographs. Maloof’s archival team has only recently finished scanning all of Maier’s black-and-white negatives, but there are still 700 undeveloped rolls of color film locked in the freezer. “There’s a lot of new discoveries that we've made and there will be for a long time,” explains Maloof.

Finding Vivian Maier opens today in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and IFC Center. It will also be available on VOD starting March 31.