Vivian Maier was an ordinary person with an extraordinary obsession with photography. She worked as a nanny practically all her life and died poor and lonely. She left behind a collection of thousands of rolls of unprocessed photographs taken by her. John Maloof, a former real estate agent in Chicago, bought a box full of them at a local thrift auction while looking for historically relevant pictures for a project. Initially, he didn’t see them as relevant to his current project and the box just sat in his closet. A few days later when he started processing the negatives, he was surprised at the quality of the pictures. He shared them on a blog and soon found out that his opinion about the pictures being special was shared by many others. In fact, so good were the pictures that John tracked down several other cartons full of negatives by Vivian and has started curating them systematically. The pictures have now traveled to several exhibitions in the world and Vivian Maier has been a subject of a documentary.
I recently paid a visit to an exhibition of Vivian’s photographs at the Foam Museum in Amsterdam and was deeply moved. There is so much life, movement and a strong sense of “being in the moment” in these photographs that I found myself driven to the edge of tears.
The exhibition also left me a little conflicted. While I am glad this wonderful body of work came to light, I wonder if Vivian Maier, an introverted, private person by several accounts, would have wanted to have shared these pictures publicly. Having seen the documentary, the whole publicity seems to have been justified on the basis of a letter she wrote to a lab in France about wanting to process her pictures. A letter she never got down to posting. But I guess, the dead don’t get to make wishes. It now looks like that soon the pictures are going to be caught in a quagmire of distant heirs, greed, copyrights and lawyers.
It also got me thinking about gigabytes of pictures that lie unprocessed on my hard drive. Would I be ok with someone rifling through them after my death and making money off them? I flatter myself with the thought that someone would want to. But for a moment, assuming that such a brave soul were to come along, I don’t think the pictures will prove to have any inherent monetary value for this person to make any money off them. I would however want the pictures to be seen as broadly as their merit allows.