U. of C. exhibit of Vivian Maier’s work is now available for public viewing

Cameras, trunks and hats are among the non-photo items in the Maier collection (Photo by Mrinalini Pandey)

Contributing writer

After weeks of curation, the major donation of Vivian Maier’s work to the University of Chicago is now available for viewing by the public, and it offers an unequalled view into the life and artistry of the heralded photographer.

Speaking with the Herald, Laura Letinsky, a U. of C. photography professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of Visual Arts, underscored that this collection delves deeper into the artist over the course of many years of their career

“Maier is somebody who we know very little about. It gives us the opportunity to really engage her work and to sort of discover or unpack what she was doing in a way that if you only get sort of the best of the best, you don’t necessarily get to see that,” she said. “It’s just a kind of way of looking an artist’s work that I think will be really important for students.”

“Many of the photographs she made are quite stellar and interesting and important images. They speak to a sense of photography circa 1940s and 50s; kind of modernist idea about what pictures do and how they operate that’s parallel to other artists who were working at the same time,” Letinsky added.” As much as it is interesting about Vivian Maier as an artist, it’s also interesting about the time when these photographs were made, looking at a sense of history and Vivian Maier as a woman making these photographs. It really gives us a sense of the world in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise be privy to.”

“But I think it is important to realize that she was working in a different time period,” she said. “Having this archive and her documenting is something that we wouldn’t have access to, whereas now perhaps with the way smartphone technology work, we have huge archives of images, millions of photographs being uploaded daily to social media alone, so it’s a very different way of you know precursor to that.”

John Maloof, a Chicago collector who owns most of Maier’s known work, donated the collection, having acquired the contents of her storage locker in a 2007 estate sale. He subsequently procured more of her works from other buyers. The Maier Collection is Maloof’s second gift to the U. of C., after having donated 500 of her works in 2017.

The gift includes over 1,200 black and white and about 1,400 color prints, which range in size from 2 by 2½ inches to 11 by 14 inches, along with other items such as still cameras, movie cameras, papers, hats and other personal belongings.

Maier was born in New York City in 1926 to French mother and Austrian father and spent much of her early life with in France before moving back first to New York in the early 1950s. She moved to Chicago in 1956. She lived an anonymous life as a nanny and died in obscurity in 2008 at 83. She never married or had children and led an extremely private life: many details about her are unknown.

While living with suburban families and caring for their children, Maier photographed extensively in her spare time. Much of her oeuvre is devoted to mid-century urban American life. She took thousands pictures on her small- and medium-format cameras, of people, landscapes, things and sometimes herself.

Whether taken on the streets of New York or Chicago or during her sojourns through Europe and Asia, critics acclaim Maier’s photographs for representing myriad human conditions and experiences. She photographed women and children — the famous, the fashionable and the obscure.

But most of her work remained unknown and unpublished. Maloof helped bring her work to the fore when he went on an extensive search to find out the details of the previous owner of property he acquired through auction.

In the 2007 estate sale, Maloof had purchased a big box of Maier’s processed and unprocessed film. When a cursory search on her name did not reveal anything to Maloof, he shared about 200 of her photographs online. They went viral, generating enough interest to hold a first public exhibition of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011, featuring 72 prints, cameras, and other personal items. It was the first U.S. exhibition of her work. The journey culminated in an Oscar-nominated documentary titled “Finding Vivian Maier”.

Since then, much of Maier’s life and career has been explored in books, news articles, feature stories and social media posts. Although rich in details, most of this work has been based on a very small portion of her work made available online and from the memories of her acquaintances. There may be as many as 100,000 more photographs held by private collectors.

Copyright issues have complicated bringing the entirety of her work to the public. Her discovery means her estate is now worth millions of dollars, leading to a rigorous search for her rightful heir. There have several lawsuits involving the ownership and usage of her work since 2014.

According to her official website, managed by Maloof, the estate includes 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies and audio tape interviews.

The 2,700 prints given to the its library are the original prints Maier developed herself, throwing light into the artist’s process. This stands in contrast to her earlier works that were developed and made available by private collectors. However, the U of C.’s Maier Collection will provide a glimpse of how Maier herself evaluated and compiled her work, which photos she chose to print and which ones she edited. This is paramount in understanding an artist’s visual impressions and her process

The previously unseen works will be available at the U. of C.’s Special Collections Center. With the Vivian Mair Collection, The U. of C. Library became the only institution in possession of Maier’s work, aside from private collectors. For information about the collection and how to access it visit      https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.MALOOFMAIER