John Maloof On “Finding Vivian Maier”

In 2007, John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate agent, bought a box of old photographs and negatives at a storage unit auction in Chicago. The contents turned out to be the work of a longtime nanny named Vivian Maier, who was also secretly a prolific artist whose work resembled the great street photographers of the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, interest in the work has exploded, culminating in coverage by every major news outlet, two shows at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, and, most recently, a documentary that Maloof co-directed with Charlie Siskel, which debuts in theaters today. ARTINFO’s Ashton Cooper caught up with Maloof to ask about making the film, creating an archive of 100,000 photographs, and how Vivian Maier changed his life.

How did the film come about?

It’s weird. I had an idea that it would be a great documentary and right when I thought that somebody from Denmark emailed me asking if he could make a documentary. We had very common creative differences and split ways very early on, but it was something that came about in late 2009.

When did you start working with producer Jeff Garlin and co-director Charlie Siskel?

Jeff Garlin is a fan of the work and also a photographer on the side. He emailed me saying if I want him as a producer to just throw his name on the film, so we went back and forth and I ended up hanging out with him a few times. I said, “I’m at a crossroads here I need help.” So he said, “Let me see what I can do.” He contacted Michael Moore and Michael Moore referred Charlie Siskel. Charlie jumped on board then. Michael Moore trained Charlie on a lot of his films.

One of the things I really liked about the film was that it pointed to how unreliable memory is. Was that something that was frustrating to you in the process? Was it funny?

Well, it wasn’t necessarily frustrating. We looked at it very objectively. Most people that I interviewed had either heard of Vivian Maier in the news or they would be like, “Yeah I remember her,” after I talked to them for the first time and then they would go online and find the crazy stories and every memory that they had was now way more important. So you don’t know what little memories they had before I called that were now worth everything to them. We had to look at it very objectively, like when people said, “She posed people” or “She didn’t pose people.” Well, who knows? We put them both in there.

In the movie, there is one woman who Vivian cared for who accused her of abuse. I got the sense that was a very strange interview. Did you believe her?

We cut a lot of that out. There was so much of her. It went beyond that. So during our earlier screenings with colleagues and stuff, your reaction was the same as everybody else like, “Yeah I don’t know. She could be telling the truth, but something is overly exaggerated. She’s overly dramatic. It doesn’t seem like she’s telling the truth or she’s stretching it.” So we decided to not cut to any b-roll or photos while she was talking about the abuse. We wanted the viewer to watch her face and look into her eyes and make their own assumptions, because if we illustrated that with other things that means that we are showing you that this did happen and illustrating to help you visualize it. Instead, we just wanted it raw. You can make up your own mind as a viewer whether you believe her or not.

Did finding Vivian’s work change your life?

She completely changed my life. I don’t know if you know this part of the story, but I didn’t really think the work was that great when I bought it. I bought it for a different purpose, but the work got me into photography. And through that, over time, I got more and more into photography. I became a photographer because of her, became a filmmaker because of her. She is my inspiration in photography. The way I see photography and filmmaking is heavily inspired by her.

And you take your own photographs now. What do you want to do with your work?

I have no idea. I’m not going to worry about that at all because any time I talk about my own work it’s going to be, “Oh, he’s riding the coattails of Vivian Maier.” So I’m not going to mess with it. I’m not going to be promoting myself for a long, long time — if ever.

Do you think being the keeper of her archive is going to be your lifelong career or do you want to move away from that?

I don’t really know the answer. It would be nice because it is a lot of work and many people think I’m making millions of dollars when in reality, the archive hasn’t made any money yet at all. There are a lot of expenses that go into this archive. It’s insane. Scanning 100,000 negatives, that’s about $100,000. I had to buy everybody’s work after I bought mine from that auction. Another box, I had to pay $70,000 for. There’s also a ton of miscellaneous overhead legal fees. There’s no money that’s made. Every time I get in front of people I’m getting, “How do you feel exploiting the work of a poor woman? You’re making all this money after she’s gone.” I hate that because it’s not my goal to make this a business. There’s no way I can spend $80,000 to $100,000 scanning the work by waiting tables or whatever. I have to sell her prints.

And you are selling the work with Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York. How did that relationship come about?

I had every gallery in New York and elsewhere wanting to work with me, but I wanted Howard because Howard was a gallery that was, in my mind, so prestigious and well-respected that I figured it would be the best home for Vivian Maier to be put in among other great photographers. When I met Howard finally I realized that he doesn’t really give a shit about turning this into something big for profit. He doesn’t need that. He’s not a vicious gallery owner who’s trying to pump out work to make his name or make money. He really just wanted to do the right thing and respect the work. So that’s exactly what I wanted.

What other galleries approached you?

Bruce Silverstein, Yossi Milo, Steven Kasher — a lot of them.

Have you scanned everything?

Everything that is developed is scanned. However there are several hundred rolls of undeveloped color film that are in a freezer that cost between $25 and $35 per roll to develop. Add that up and it’s something that I just can’t afford.

And the color work isn’t as popular as the black and white.

Not only that, but the later color work is very faded. One in four will develop decent enough, but if you get good content on that roll you’re lucky. I’ll develop it eventually; I just don’t know when.

There has been some institutional reticence about getting involved with the work because of the issue of posthumous prints. In the movie, you briefly talk about the issue of posthumous prints and you bring up the Winogrand show. Have you spoken to the people who did the Winogrand show and asked them what their approach was to doing posthumous printing?

I know the printer who did all the prints there, but I didn’t really get into it. We were already along our own path of how we’re doing this so it was already an established way of doing these posthumous prints. I was able to reach out to a lot of really experienced and important people who were able to give me advice and suggestions. We made a decision that we weren’t going to alter the contrast or crop. We’re just going to try to print the photographs how they look. We don’t know what the contrast would have been for her or the cropping.

Who did you turn to for advice?

I talked to a lot of people. Colin Westerbeck, Joel Meyerowitz, Peter Hurley. I talked to many institutions: the George Eastman House, ICP, Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, which printed all the Winogrand stuff. Also our printer and Howard Greenberg. I’m not even listing them all, but there’s a lot of people I talked to. One of the people I spoke to unfortunately passed away: Allan Sekula.

You were in touch with Sekula?

Yeah he was huge on this discovery, because when I first bought the work I was selling some of the negatives on eBay because I didn’t know any better and he emailed me and told me to stop. And I stopped.

How did he find them on eBay?

Well, he used to sell on eBay — old photos and postcards.

Has there been any academic interest in the work. Has anyone approached you about researching and studying the archive?

Not really. There are some people who wanted to do a thesis, but not really. There are so many people who just want to have access to the archive, but there’s not an authority in photography who has contacted me and wanted to dive in and do some research. I would really like that.

And no institutions have expressed any interest in getting involved in the work at all?

Nobody has expressed interest.

What’s next for you now that the documentary is done?

I’m going to do another documentary. Not about her. I want to do more films. Probably it will be another documentary.

—  Ashton Cooper (@ashton_cooper)

(Photo: © Vivian Maier / Courtesy of the Maloof Collection / IFC)