History

Discovery

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

After he and his co-author looked through the negatives, they found nothing relevant for the project so John put them in a closet until after the book was completed. After some time, he revisited the negatives and started to scan them. The images that caught his attention were historic in nature (he had absolutely no background in photography to know what to look for). John became inspired to pick up his point-and-shoot camera and document the city the way this photographer had. Photography became a new passion and he became a photographer.

If we fast forward about a year later, John’s point-and-shoot camera is a long gone and he’s on the streets with a Rolleiflex, just like Vivian Maier. By that time, he had taken it upon himself to take a crash course on photography to pick up what he could about its history and its masters. John created a darkroom in his attic and set out to learn the process of printing and developing film. Maloof was ashamed to admit this to others at first, but he had become obsessed with Vivian’s work, and made it his mission to re-construct her archive.

Over the course of a year, John managed to save about 90% of her work from the other buyers at the original auction to accumulate a collection of 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, and various other items. Another collector, Jeff Goldstein, managed to salvage the rest.

After creating a blog showing about 100 photos of her work that nobody visited for months, he posted a discussion on Flickr to the group HCSP, and the response and traffic was overwhelming. Since then, he’s been on a non-stop schedule of archiving, promoting, and preserving Vivian Maier’s work.

Research

Thanks to one of the families that Vivian nannied for in Chicago for seventeen years, the Gensburgs, John was able to acquire items in her two (packed) storage lockers of personal belongings that were going to be thrown in the garbage. Most of what was stuffed in these two units was a giant collection of various found objects such as crushed paint cans, railroad spikes and other tchotchkes, but sandwiched between the clutter, were hundreds of rolls of color film and fresh clues that would take the research into new directions.

Most promising were the piles of papers. There were her hoards of newspapers. Vivian saved newspaper articles, organized them in plastic sleeves and kept them in jammed binders neatly packed in boxes. There were hundreds of binders of newspaper clippings in her belongings. There was also however a collection of mail. While some of it that had been addressed to her, there was also a substantial amount of mail that was from others she had lived with. Through the information John and his research partner, Anthony Rydzon, gleaned from these odds and ends, they were able to gather enough information to research Vivian and create a thorough timeline of her life.

Many of the families that Vivian worked for will tell you about her passionate liberal beliefs. There is evidence of this with one of the pieces of mail found. It was from the Republican National Committee and addressed to one of her former employers. This minor take is certainly for the betterment of Maier’s history, because that piece of mail was the only clue that led them to the Baylaender family. Many receipts, mail (personal and not), notes, etc, have given the information needed to further our knowledge of Vivian’s life. The result is the discovery of almost every family Maier was employed by throughout her entire life, as well as quite a few people who knew Vivian. Without the clues she left behind hidden within those two stuffed storage lockers there would have been no leads to follow. It’s almost as if she left a perfectly arranged puzzle to be put together after her death.

A box of Vivian Maier's lifetime prints

A box of Vivian Maier’s lifetime prints

Vivian Maier's mail, letters and receipts

Vivian Maier’s mail, letters and receipts

Some of Vivian Maier's boxes and belongings

Some of Vivian Maier’s boxes and belongings

Suitcases and shoes belonging to Maier

Suitcases and shoes belonging to Maier

Newspaper clippings Maier collected and organized in binders

Newspaper clippings Maier collected and organized in binders

One of Vivian Maier's storage lockers

One of Vivian Maier’s storage lockers