Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was a nanny for most of her life in Chicago. But on her time off, she took pictures. Of everything. John Maloof stumbled across her work at auction, and now owns 100,000 negatives taken over decades by Maier, who has become one of the world's biggest art stories. Merry Karnowsky Gallery, with support from actor Tim Roth, is hosting LA's biggest showing of Maier's photos. Off-Ramp host John Rabe spoke with Maloof about Vivian Maier, and spoke with her many fans - including director Wim Wenders - at a preview of the exhibit.
Maier is considered an "outsider artist." That can mean the artist is mentally disturbed, like Henry Darger, or it can mean that they're simply not accepted by the mainstream art world, like Simon Rodia, creator of the Watts Towers.
In Maier's case, it doesn't seem like she ever tried to get acceptance for her art, which was street photography. Instead, she traveled the world, then worked as a domestic, all the while amassing roomfuls of negatives. John Maloof, who discovered her work when he was looking for photos to illustrate a local history book, says maybe she wasn't secure enough in her work - like so many artists - to subject it to public or critical scrutiny.
Her work can stand the strain. Maier's photos have now been shown and printed in the U.S. and Europe, and are gathered in the book, "Vivian Maier: Street Photographer." The book is good, but can't match seeing more than 100 full-size prints at Karnowsky's gallery. They give you a sense of Maier's biggest gift, her acceptance by her subjects. At a preview for the exhibit, director Wim Wenders, who calls them "gorgeous," told us Maier has a loving eye. "She loves people, you sense that."
Scott Hicks, director of "Shine" and "Snow Falling on Cedars," was buying a copy of Maier's book for his production designer, and finds it hard to believe a "nanny on her time off" had such an educated eye. "It's a feast," he says. He says he does have a certain amount of ambivalence about someone making money from Maier's work after her death.
In our Off-Ramp interview, Maloof says he he's not "making money," that he's spent $200,000 in scanning, archiving, and printing so far, costs that haven't been recouped. He says he feels a little guilty that he's selling prints, "knowing she could have some level of success while she was alive." But, he says, "What do you want me to do? I could just leave it in my basement and let it collect dust? I could do nothing, or get money to get this out there."
Looking at Maier's work, it's hard to argue that it shouldn't be accessible, and it's tantalizing to fantasize about what's on the 90,000+ negatives Maloof hasn't even looked at yet.
"Vivian Maier - A Life Discovered," is at Merry Karnowsky Gallery through January 28, at 170 S. LaBrea Ave, LA CA 90036.