Sunday Opinion: $400.00

In 2007, John Maloof, a young Chicago street photographer/ real estate agent in the process of writing a book about Chicago, went to an auction of objects repossessed from a storage locker whose rental had gone long unpaid.  Among the items, a large plastic bin filled with black and white negatives.  A cursory inspection revealed some images he thought were from Chicago; he thought perhaps some of the images might be useful for his book.  A bin full of celluloid objet trouve-he paid 400.00. Since that day, he has learned the images were taken by a Chicago photographer who made her living as a nanny between 1950, and the 1990’s.  He has since collected other bins, suitcases with clothes, and cameras.  Vivian Maier was a street photographer whose prodigious body of work might have passed into oblivion, but for Mr. Maloof.  Though only a small portion of her work has been scanned and viewed by Mr. Maloof, and the noted art photography historians he has consulted, there is talk in the air that Vivian Maier may be one of the mid twentieth century’s most brilliant street photographers.  The entire story?  Go to  Watch the video: January 7: Vivian Maier, Street Photographer and Nanny.

I like everything about this story.  Vivian Maier, a nanny for familes on the north shore of Chicago, was a very private woman, off duty.  On her days off, she would leave, dressed for the weather, camera in tow.  Her destination, her thoughts, her work-entirely unknown.  Mr. Maloof was so taken with the images he saw, he bought more plastic bins, suitcases-whatever he could find relating to her.  Her hats.  Her cameras.  It took lots of time for him to to even discover her name.  One employer was forthcoming about her tenure with their family-as much as they knew. There is no doubt he has become obsessed with his objet trouve.  But his treasure has become his responsibility.  There are 100,000 negatives.  He worries about how long it will take to scan them all.  He has made a considerable effort to recreate a life, and a body of work, from so many strips of film.  A 400.00 plastic bin full of negatives has shaken him up but good.

Mr. Maloof (I am spelling his name only having watched the video) might stand to profit handsomely, should the work of Vivian Maier stand and deliver, as well he should.  But for him, her work might have been put out like so much garbage.  I am not much interested in this part.  I am really interested in what I saw on his face.  What he saw in her photographs moved him.  Beyond this, I believe his passion and committment for what he never saw coming is extraordinary.  Face to face with an objet trouve of this caliber, I would only hope I would have the courage, committment and foresight to respond fiercely and seriously-as he has done.

An objet trouve does not come with directions. The video clearly expresses his worry, and angst in this regard. The chance relationship between a maker and a finder can create some high voltage.  That moment when I consider a serviceable wood box that might move on and become a container, that incredible bracket fungus that organizes a sculpture, that tree whose trunk inspires a design for a garden, the raindrops that make me hang glass drops from a tree-powerful stuff.

The work I have seen of of Vivian Maier-astonishing, and compelling.  Many of the images I have seen are portraits.  People on the street.  People in cars.  People in transit.  People in motion. People in flux.  People whose eyes meet mine. People of all ages. I plan to go to Chicago this winter to see that exhibition of her work. 

Her work is making me think so much about portraits.  The work she left behind is creating a portrait of Mr. Maloof; he seems forever changed by them. My garden has no doubt changed me, as much as I have changed it.  It is a portrait, of a sort.  Gardens have much to say about the gardener- their interests, hopes, and dreams.  What few photographs of Vivian Maier I have seen-so beautiful.

Update:  Many thanks to for letting me know Mr. Maloof has a website devoted to his project:


  1. That’s an amazing story. Thanks for posting about it. I think I’m going to mention it on my own blog.

  2. Thanks for posting this story. Her photos are amazing and so insightful. I feel for young Mr. Maloof. You can tell he feels a great sense of responsibility for perserving her work. Fascinating.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Lindalou, his sense of responsibility is unmistakeable. So is his conviction that she is an artist deserving of the interest of others. Deborah

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