In 2007, John Maloof went to
a storage unit auction, placed a winning bid of $380 and won the rights to a
cardboard box filled with never-developed photo negatives. A real estate agent
and President of the Jefferson Park Historical Society in Chicago, Illinois,
Maloof initially bought 30,000 black & white film negatives, placed on the
auction block because their owner was behind on storage rent payments for the
locker in which they had been kept for over 50 years. He would eventually
purchase over 130,000 of the undeveloped snapshots made in the fifties and
sixties by a Chicago woman named Vivian Maier.
Since developing the massive archive of negatives, John Maloof has introduced the world to the photographic work of the hitherto unknown nanny and amateur photographer. This remarkably talented woman is being hailed as the twentieth century’s premier street photographer. The spotlight of international media attention has illuminated her work through exhibitions in New York, London. Los Angeles, Oslo and Hamburg and a BBC documentary. Her poignant shots of everyday life in the American urban and suburban setting of the 50's and 60's seem, to many, to capture the soul and essence of the times. Many now refer to the woman as a “poet of suburbia,” or “Mary Poppins with a camera.”
And yet, for years, most of her work remained locked up in a storage unit. Two years after John Maloof bought the negatives, he discovered her obituary. At the age of 83, before her great talent was fully discovered, she died from complications resulting from a fall on the ice.
One wonders why Vivian Maier never developed her artistic photos. If she could not pay her storage rent, perhaps she lacked the funds to pay for film developing. Maybe she lacked confidence in her work, was insecure and hesitant to pursue her artistic talent or afraid to risk public criticism. Maybe life got in the way and other things which seemed more important kept her from getting around to it. It’s possible that, in her mature years, she regarded her youthful photos as nothing more than the naïve and foolish idealism of adolescence. Perhaps someone in a position of power over her insisted that she had no talent, that her pictures were a waste or that she should spend her time and money on something more sensible. We’ll never know.
Oh God, give us more people like John Maloof who are willing to risk a bid and bring the unexposed treasure and worth of others to the light. And, pray God, may their undeveloped potential be discovered before they die!