Vivian Maier: another “developing story”

After the critique controversy about Vivian Maier’s photographic work there is another controversy which is now starting about who “discovered” her first, and the circumstances and actors that participate to the acquisition and gathering of her material.

Here are some key elements of time-frame, from the first sale of materials up to Vivian Maier’s death – as far as I know it and understand it so far.

  • 2007: the first batches of materials from Vivian Maier are sold at an Auction. How and when exactly the Chicagoan auction house (RPN sales) got the material is still a bit of a mystery (to me). Did they get different batches or everything once in while ? was there some sort of middle man ? All that is not clear. But it seems established that Vivian Maier has lost control of her stuffs more than 1 year before she died – because she needed some cash “to pay her fees”.
  • 2007-2008: other batches of material are sold, to different buyers, among them Ron Slattery and John Maloof and probably Jeff Goldstein too. Those 3 got interested in the work itself and decided to get more. At this point the name of Vivian Maier (as the author of the shots) is likely to be known by each of them, more than 1 year before she dies. But they do not find further information about her.
  • July 2008: Ron Slattery post the first scan of a VM picture on his website. He got few public feedback from that, but is contacted by other people who are interested in the material. At the same period Ron and John seem to team together in order to give a proper use of the material and make it known to the public.
  • At one point Ron Slattery, who is uninsured, is in need of cash to cover medical expenses (according to his saying). He sells the materials he got to John Maloof. Seems that afterwards Ron and John discontinued their effort together for whatever reasons.
  • January 2009 John Maloff post a first scan of a VM picture on his Flickr account.
  • 21 April 2009. Vivian Maier passes away. Shortly after John Malooff stumbles upon the related obituary in Chicago Tribune. The obituary mentions Maier as the “second mother to John, Lane and Matthew”, i.e. the kids she nannied. It could have been the clue that allows Maloof to unfold the story.


Vivian Maier’s posthumous fame took off after John Maloof posted a topic on the HCSP Flickr board, in October 2009. But for the anecdote the first pics published on the internet came out when she was still alive, first in Ron Slattery website, and later on on the John Maloof Flickr account. It is somewhat tragic that Vivian Maier died few months before her work came out, and that she was still alive when the process of her “fame” was underway. It adds much to the compelling side of the story. But so was it…

One thing that intrigues me though is that she decided to sell her photographic work along with other stuffs she had. Sure she was in need of cash, but this work seem to have been what she was attached to the most, and that decision sounds like 1. she attributed some value to it, otherwise than a mere personal value and 2. could be that it was unconsciously a way to give that work a chance to be wider know.

– EDIT – On that later point the story seems much more simple: her stuffs were seized by her creditors because of payment default and it is likely that actually there was no will from Maier to let them go.


I am not very interested in who “discovered” Vivian Maier first. In fact nobody discovered her, the work was here and then there were some circumstances that leads to a wide public exposure of it. It appears that at one point there were several individuals involved, some of them got interested in the work, teamed up together but finally diverged on how to make usage of that or whatever personal motives, and then things moved on. That is life. A short story on Wikipedia or on any media never do a faithful coverage of what actually happens, the reality is always more complex and there are shadowed parts never unfolded. Just like a staged photograph can’t rival with an unplanned shot, with its parts of accident, uncertainty etc… all which are eluded when it comes to “re-stage” a piece of reality. Same here, what precisely happened is of course much more complex than what is publicly reported here and here by he and he. But that is no reason to put a veil of suspicion on the whole story. And if there are some private case to sort out between Ron, John and others will they do that in a private manner.

Finally the objective  situation today is IMO much better than it could have been. Most of the material is in one man’s hands (John Maloof) who has decided to bring it to the public in various ways. It is much better than if it has been disseminated into many collectors hands. And at this point one cannot do otherwise than to trust John Maloof in his intentions, and if possible to help him. He’s got the work, period. I can say that if it was me who got the materials – and however passionate I could have been about the work – I am not sure I would have done better than Maloof so far. I am rather convinced of the opposite.

So what  if John Maloof makes himself a reputation out of exploiting the VM’s material ? I would say, I hope he will make him a reputation. That would mean that he does well, that the balance between the mistakes he does and the successful things he does is positive, which is good.

And so what if he makes money out of it ? That would be a little deserved, no ? By the way I am not sure there is a lot of profit to make here, considering the exploitation cost of such material. And if one day John Maloof decides to re-sell all the material to an institution, museum, or estate dedicated to photography, making a substantial profit of it, it could be a good thing for the work.


One thought on “Vivian Maier: another “developing story”

  1. You’ve made quite a few assumptions.
    Rather than Googling for your information, why not try contacting some of the people you’re referring to directly.
    To this day it amazes me the way people try and put together the truth of the Vivian Maier story without contacting everyone involved. It ends up like the party game where one guest tells a story and passes it on to the next one. It ends up being something entirely different from what was started.

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