How A Flea Market Find Uncovered A Lost, Unknown Photographic Genius
Imagine getting your props a little late in the game -- like after-your-passing-late. The famous artists who've attained more recognition after their death than while they roamed this planet are such legends as Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, and the Dogs Playing Poker guy. Vivian Maier, born in the Bronx in 1926, was another ahead of her time genius that would never live to see her artistry gain the love it deserved.
According to the now grown-up children she babysat in Chicago, Maier was a headstrong and firm yet passionately curious and extremely private person. The recipe for every genius, duh. The outspoken but humble eye behind the camera, that she carried pretty much everywhere, strolled along the streets of Chicago, unaware of her uniqueness. But now (with no level of exaggeration), Maier is regarded as one of the principal photographers of the 20th century.
Hoarding negatives of her photographs taken during her time as a nanny, it would be years until someone found her work lying in boxes at a flea market for $400. John Maloof, then a real-estate agent with a love for uncovering historical artifacts, found Maier's negatives and, upon realizing they were not the weird old grandparent porn you usually find in flea market negatives, made a documentary of it.
Maier is said to have taken over 100,000 negatives, also leaving us with 1,000 rolls of undeveloped film and prints. What has made her so inspiring? Well, her body of work tells us much about her talent for seeing a moment at the right time. In addition, she has become recognized for her precise eyes that could capture human emotion itself:
While exceeding in photography, Maier had what some would call shortcomings on the babysitting side. With her twin-lens Rolleiflex, she would walk several miles with the children she babysat, most likely to capture moments on city streets, at times losing her focus on the children (so, not babysitting at all in fact) "As an adult, I would say she was a person who had a lot of baggage, literally and figuratively," recalls one of her watched children, "It was so bizarre. I went into the attic (where she lived with them) maybe three times the whole time she was my nanny, and the stacks of newspapers were taller than me. It was like walking through a valley of newspapers."
Known for being a packrat, she is remembered as having been protective of her belongings. Maier frequently referred to herself as a spy, and although the reason lies unknown, she most likely thought of herself this way in conjunction with the world: looking at it closely though never getting too near. Or, she really was a spy, and there's a whole other subplot to this mystery we're not taking seriously enough.
This enigma of a woman who never revealed too much of her life had the world find her through her photographs. Even though most would be furious if their great "body of work" wasn't seen during their lifetimes, it seems as though Maier didn't subscribe to the pics-or-it-didn't-happen mentality. She'd take selfies on the streets incognito and engage herself in what she believed was interesting -- not needed to show the world her pics to prove it. But fate ended up doing the work for her in the most ridiculous, wonderful way possible.
For more of Oona’s sarcasm and attempted wit, visit her website oonaoffthecuff.com.
Top Image: IFC