Finding Vivian Maier @ The Ross

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

What’s in your attic? What’s in your basement? Things you no longer care about? Or things you don’t want people to see? Well, let me ask you this: what would you do with those intimate artifacts? Chicago historian and photographer John Maloof explores the world of American street photographer and Nanny Vivian Maier in his documentary Finding Vivian Maier.


Vivian Maier was born in 1926 in New York city and died in a nursing home in Chicago in 2009 at the age of 83 after a slip and fall on the ice. She hid things in her bathroom—a space she turned into a dark room wherein she developed many of her photographs; she dared any of her charges or employers to step foot therein. In another home, she told her employers “I come with my life, and my life is in boxes,” and those boxes filled up their garage. Those are the boxes Maloof bought for $400.00 at an auction in 2007, and what he found were 30,000 negatives he began to scan onto his computer. During this process, Maloof realizes that he has come across pictures of artistic value that document street life from the 1950s-1970s. He went back bought the remaining boxes, which totaled some 100,000 negatives.

pix of two boys

For all of the sensationalism about the new discovery of a natural talent, the exhibitions in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Maier’s spectacular photographs she took with her Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera—Maloof has that too—or opinions that she was eccentric, Finding Vivian Maier is a story about privacy and the extreme lengths a woman will go to keep it.

Maier photographed the world around her, but declined to let anyone see the product from her efforts, except for one family with whom she was employed. She refused to satisfy the curiosity of her employers by declining to answer any questions about her life nor did she offer any information about same. Those interviewed, then, could only offer to the public their observations of her.


The documentary, however, goes a step further. What seeps out is a tale about a woman who felt her business—her life–belonged only to her, and she kept that business in boxes and boxes of things in the attic or in the basement. Perhaps, in such a rapidly changing world, the rolls of film and negatives in her boxes let her know she existed, and she did not seek the world out to affirm that for her.

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