The Vivian Maier “Discovery” Is More Complicated Than We Thought

Vivian Maier, “Untitled” (1959) (© Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary about the nanny who’s gained incredible posthumous fame for her previously unseen work as a photographer, was released this past weekend in the UK. But in addition to garnering reviews, it’s also bringing a longstanding but little-covered conflict over Maier’s work and archive to light. The film’s release has “fuelled a row between the men whose accidental discovery of her work … led to Maier belatedly coming to the world’s attention and garnering a posthumous reputation on a par with Henri Cartier-Bresson,” the Independent reported.

The documentary was made by John Maloof, the principal holder of Maier’s work and belongings. It follows his journey of discovery, from purchasing a box of her negatives on a whim at a Chicago auction in 2007 to Googling her and finding her obituary in 2009; from beginning a quest to learn who she was to representing her estate and making contemporary prints of her work in conjunction with Howard Greenberg Gallery. Finding Vivian Maier is singularly focused on Maloof and his relationship with the dead photographer; nowhere along the way does the film name anyone else who also bought and discovered Maier’s work at that same Chicago auction.

As it turns out, two people did: Ron Slattery and Randy Prow. According to the Independent, Prow sold his Maier collection in 2010 to a man named Jeffrey Goldstein, who has since gone on to befriend and collaborate with Maloof. “Maloof and Goldstein both sell posthumous prints from Maier’s negatives — and they both put their own signatures on the backs of these prints,” said photographer and professor Pamela Bannos in an interview earlier this month with Spolia magazine.

As for Slattery, he posted some of Maier’s images online even before Maloof, in 2008, writing at the time: “I don’t know much about her … I bought a ton of her stuff at a small auction. Part of what I got are 1200 rolls of her undeveloped film. They sit in boxes next to my desk. Everyday, I look at those boxes and wonder what kind of goodies are inside … ” In an interview with Gapers Block, Slattery explained that he and Maloof were in touch between 2007 and 2009, discussing Maier’s work and their discoveries, until he decided to sell a chunk of his collection to Maloof because he needed money to pay medical bills. Slattery still owns “several thousand vintage prints and an undisclosed amount of negatives and slides,” according to Bannos, but seems to have disappeared from the ‘official’ Maier story.

“The site [] states that they are setting themselves up as the validators of Vivian’s work and I am worried they are trying to cut me out,” Slattery told Gapers Block in 2011. “I don’t want to be in the position to have to prove I have the real thing later when they all know I do now.” In conversation with the Independent last week, however, he seemed more accepting of the situation:

“I really don’t care who decides to be the champion of her work because frankly it doesn’t matter. Vivian Maier matters. We are in an age where the curators want to be stars, and often become via storytelling, but the bottom line is, it’s the artist who is the shining light. Vivian Maier is that light.”

Why does any of this matter? Because the fracturing and complicated case of Maier’s archive affects how we understand her and her work. Maier is no longer alive (nor does she have any descendants), which means the printing and presentation of her work and story are controlled almost entirely by the private collectors who own her effects — none of whom she knew, let alone chose to represent her.

“I feel conflicted about Maier’s archive in general,” said Pamela Bannos, who claims she’s been repeatedly denied access to study Maloof’s Maier collection. She continued:

This was a very private woman who chose not to share her personal life or her photography. That apparently is what has made her into a “mystery woman.” The selective editing of her work has perpetuated her mystery. After viewing more than 20,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, a different photographer emerged for me than the one first presented by John Maloof. I feel intensely uncomfortable with the way that he has presented her personal belongings alongside her photographic history — putting her shoes on display, and laying out her blouses in his movie, for example. I think he’s done a good job of transforming her into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows that model. I don’t know how any of that would fit into a traditional concept of an archive.

Bannos is working on a book, Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive, about Maier’s work and posthumous fame. There’s also another documentary out there, The Vivian Maier Mystery (originally aired on BBC 1 as Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?), which tells what you might call the other side of the story — or at least a slightly different one — by including interviews with Slattery, Bannos, and others. Maloof declined to participate.

Correction, 7/28: This article originally stated that Finding Vivian Maier does not mention that anyone else bought and discovered Maier’s work at the original Chicago auction. That was incorrect — the film does say that there were other buyers. It has been fixed.

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