Articles have been circulating about street photographer Vivian Maier, whose work (pictured above) was only discovered after her death in 2009. I’m interested in Maier not only because I like her photography, but because I find the story of her discovery captivating. If you haven’t already heard the story, the basic gist is that back in 2007 John Maloof bought about 30,000 of Maier’s negatives in an auction, hoping to find photographs of Portage Park for a Chicago history book he was co-writing. Maloof didn’t uncover Maier’s name until more than a year later, and when he googled her found that she had passed away just days earlier.
Since then Maloof has acquired a collection of 100,000 Maier negatives, in addition to other personal belongings, and posts some of these photographs on his blog. Not too much is known about Maier’s background, as she was rather private about her personal history, but we know that she worked as a nanny while photographing on the side. For more details, read this Chicago Magazine article. This website by another collector also features her photography.
The story of Maier’s discovery demonstrates how the new — technology — helps us explore the old, which is a theme running through one of my classes this semester (History of Books and Libraries). One of my goals while working in archives is to discover previously untold stories and share them. While I often enjoy learning the details of a person’s life, I have to ask questions about privacy (especially when one has passed away recently) — would Maier, who preferred her life to remain private, appreciate people trying to uncover her past? Should we just enjoy her work without digging into her history?