Her Hidden Self

May 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

In 2007, a box of negatives purchased at a real estate auction turned out to hold the work of one of the finest street photographers in mid-twentieth century America. Vivian Maier was a nanny in Chicago who–on her weekly day off–would take her Rolleiflex camera into the streets. Her work captured her travels (as poor as she sometimes was), the evolution of black and white to color photography, women and children, and Chicago urban life from the 1950s-1990s.

She captured both wealth...

...and images of poverty.

Her discoverer, John Maloof, began researching her life and collecting as many boxes of her work as he could find, with over 100,000 negatives gathered. Not much is known about her personally as she was very private. I’m intrigued by what she would think of her work being revealed now, when she never sought to publicize it during her lifetime. This self-imposed obscurity seems to show up in her actual photos as well, in the many sly and clever self-portraits she’s taken.

I’m also struck by her passion for the art of photography alone, devoid of any need to show other people, be recognized, or make money off of it. Maloof found hundreds of rolls of film from times when she was too poor to develop them. Much of her own work, she never even saw. But the continuous taking of pictures–that was the important part.

I’m equally struck by John Maloof’s role in all of this. He discovered her work while writing a historical book about the neighborhood, so he had some artistic outlet already. But he hasn’t just invested a bit of his own money and time into making her work public. He’s devoted all his energy to this: scanning, archiving and publishing her work, researching her life, showing her work in exhibitions, and starting a documentary.

His creative project has become highlighting  her creative work. I suppose it could be seen as simply marketing, but I think it’s an interesting type of artistic collaboration, taking on someone else’s lifework and adding to it, making it your own. Like a translator navigating English speakers through the beauty of a Spanish poem, Maloof guides Vivian Maier’s hidden photos into the public eye.

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