From Recluse Nanny to Photography Genius

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You never know where youll find genius. John Maloof discovered it at an auction house in Chicago seven years ago, when he stumbled across a box of photo negatives that changed his life.

They were street scenes thousands of them and Maloof, then 29, thought theyd come in handy for a history book he was researching. He paid $380 for the box and combed through them. Then, he posted some of the photos on his blog, where they went viral, attracting the attention of photography fans and critics.

Maiers haunting scenes of people from all walks of life brought her posthumous recognition as a great artist in the tradition of Weegee and Robert Frank, among others. She was also lauded for the stark beauty of her compositions and for the uncanny way she caught unguarded moments.

Maloofs obsessive pursuit of Maiers story is the basis of a new documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. Opening in New York and Los Angeles Friday, it was directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, a nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel.

Little by little, I recognized the work was really good, Maloof tells The Post.

Through dogged detective work, he found and bought other boxes of Maiers work that were scattered throughout the city, many taken from storage lockers, where they were about to be thrown out. These contained thousands of photos, as well as audio recordings and Super 8 film footage. Eventually, Maloofs collection totaled more than 100,000 pictures shot from the 1950s to the 1990s, most of which had never been printed or even developed.

It took even longer for the photographer herself to come into focus and then, only when Maloof came upon the obituary for Maier, who died in 2009 at 83. She was born in New York City in 1926 but grew up in France before returning to the States in 1951. Little more about her private life is known, although the filmmakers tracked down some of her relatives in France, who recalled her passion for photography but were bemused to discover that her work was being celebrated.

The filmmakers also interviewed several of Maiers former employers, including talk-show host Phil Donahue, who describe their former nanny fondly.

It turned out that, during her off hours, Maier prowled the streets with a Rolleiflex camera, shooting her subjects unobtrusively. Occasionally she turned the camera on herself, almost always in shadow.

Would such a private person have wanted her work to be seen?

Vivian did know she was a great artist, but she obviously did not share that side of herself, Siskel says. Shes finally getting the fame she deserved.

Since that box of negatives came to light, Maiers photos have been exhibited around the country and in Paris, London, Oslo, Hamburg and Moscow. Collectors, including actor Tim Roth, have paid thousands of dollars for prints.

Although she photographed cityscapes and people of all stripes, Maier took particular interest in what Siskel calls those on the fringes of society.

When you look at her photos you connect with the idea that there are people in the world who are forgotten and to whom we should be paying more attention, he says. Thats why her story resonates the whole idea that there can be a great undiscovered artist in our midst.


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