By Steve Johnson
Almost 500 never-before-shown Vivian Maier prints have found a new home at the University of Chicago Library, the university announced Wednesday.
Maier, the Chicago-area nanny who has become famous posthumously as a street photographer — and as the subject of extensive legal wrangling — has had museum and gallery shows but has not previously had her work held by a research institution.
The gift, from Chicago collector John Maloof, who owns the great majority of known Maier work, will give art historians, photography students and other interested parties the chance to examine a new range of Maier work in the close detail of an archival setting.
"We would like to simply make the collection available to researchers," said Daniel Meyer, director of special collections at the library. "We are very interested in seeing what students and researchers are able to provide in the way of interpretation and analysis."
Maloof, co-writer and co-director of the Academy Award-nominated 2013 documentary "Finding Vivian Maier," said the gift may help boost the artist's stature.
"That's part of the hope," he said. "I hope that being in the collection — being that they accepted it and are going to share it and maybe do some exhibitions in the future — will give an institutional backing to the artist."
A key element of the gift, which also includes a Maier camera and other personal effects, is that the images were selected by Maier herself for printing, which she did with only a small fraction of the more than 135,000 negatives she is known to have shot during more than four decades working in Chicago and New York and on overseas trips.
"We make a lot of contemporary prints through the galleries and offer them to people that want to own a Vivian Maier print or whatever," Maloof said. "I think that this is a good body of work for anybody looking to research Vivian Maier. People fascinated by her, her story, her body of work can learn more about her through this donation."
Indeed, the photographs in the donation, which range from small color shots printed commercially by Kodak up to some black-and-white 8-by-10s and larger thought to have been printed by Maier when she had access to a darkroom, can be viewed as a much fuller representation of the artist's intention than has previously been displayed.
"I put the collection together to show Vivian Maier in as many ways as possible," Maloof said.
Before these photos, Maier's work has been seen mostly in images selected and printed by Maloof and other men who came into possession of it after she was unable to keep up payments on a storage locker in 2007 and the contents were auctioned off.
"There is, I think, a difference between many of these photographs and the photographs people have seen in the exhibitions or in published books," said Meyer. "These are in a sense the collection she made herself. Included are images she cropped and enlarged or that she would print in several different ways. So you get a sense of Vivian Maier as a practicing, working photographer who is experimenting and also testing different approaches to her work."
Having the images find a home at a research institution may prove to be a key moment in Maier's artistic reputation, said Joel Snyder, a University of Chicago art historian and photography expert who has seen the photos in the donation.
"It's going to play a role in that sorting-out process, and the sorting-out process is going to take years and years," Snyder said. "To me her sensibility is a sensibility that comes out of the '40s and '50s and gets sort of canonized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By the standards with which people in art museums judged prints in the '50s, '60s and '70s, these are very, very strong pictures. ... It's really a fascinating collection."
In addition to some of her well-known subject matter — people on streets unaware they are being photographed, close-ups of hands and feet, portraits made on the fly — the collection is said to contain streetside photographs of celebrities including Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and Pope John Paul II.
For an artist, being more than a short-term sensation is often dependent on the reception from collectors and institutions, Snyder said.
"We're at the very starting point, really," he said. "We're in the process now of trying to figure out whether 'the right' kinds of buyers will buy them. Then over 10, 15 or 50 years families will give them to university collections or museums.
"The community, I can't imagine, is going to say something worse than, 'She was really good at doing something that people admired in other photographers at that time.' Now, will she get a head of steam, have exhibitions at the 'right' institutions? You can't tell yet, and I can't make a judgment other than the fact that I really like quite a large number of them."
Born in New York in 1926, Maier began working as a nanny for a North Shore family in 1956. She shot steadily but apparently very rarely printed her negatives, toting boxes with her from one live-in domestic job to another. Poverty-stricken in the 2000s, she lost her stored possessions to the auction block. Maier never recovered from a late 2008 fall on ice and died in a nursing home the next year.
By then, Maloof and two other collectors had purchased the contents of her storage locker. The photographs of hers that Maloof posted on Flickr in 2009 became an Internet sensation, and fascination with this mysterious, reclusive, camera-toting nanny, and an attendant cottage industry, were born.
Maloof and Chicago collector Jeffrey Goldstein thought they had made a deal with the Meier heir whom Maloof located, a French cousin, paying for rights to the work. Maloof, who holds about 90 percent of the known negatives, and Goldstein, who had about 10 percent, published books, staged exhibitions and sold prints, and Maier's renown grew.
But in 2014 Virginia lawyer and photographer David Deal surfaced with another French cousin. His filing in Cook County probate court on behalf of the new relative led to an estate takeover by the county's public administrator on the grounds that Maier had left no will and heirship was unsettled.
Faced with sharing control with the county, Goldstein defiantly sold his Maier negatives to a Toronto art dealer, who has since sold them to investors in Switzerland. Just this spring the county sued Goldstein seeking to claw back his profits from Maier's work.
Meanwhile, the county government reached an agreement with Maloof that essentially allows him to continue owning the negatives while paying the estate an undisclosed royalty on his earnings from them.
The U. of C. donation, however, is not caught up in any legal fight, both Maloof and university representatives said. The Vivian Maier estate "signed off entirely. They're happy with it," Maloof said.
And both said they hope that in the future Maloof, who said he has about 3,500 more vintage prints made by Maier of wildly varying degrees of quality, will be donating more to the university.
"We're very pleased John Maloof has selected the university as a permanent home for these photographs," said librarian Meyer, who said the library expects to have them cataloged and ready for visitors to see by the end of the year. "We're looking forward to having the collection grow and presenting her work more fully over time."
The donation provides a satisfying resolution to at least one aspect of Vivian Maier's complicated legacy, said Snyder, the photography expert.
"It's the right thing to have it in a university collection that serves a lot of people, a lot of students, who are interested in photography," he said.