Finding Vivian

Oh boy I have hit a wall this week. I have just woken up after having slept since I put the kids to bed and woke up disorientated and surprised that a ‘quick’ nap at 8 turned into 3 hours. Each day this week it has been manic with feeding family visitors each evening. While lovely to have them round, it has been a bit of a challenge doing cooking and childcare hence my lack of a blog post last night – another £1 in the pot!

Also hasn’t helped that when I finally do decide to go to bed I can’t wind down. Particularly after being inspired, like I was on Tuesday night, by a fascinating BBC documentary on a woman called Vivian Meier. A few years ago, her photography was discovered in random auctions of lockers that she used to own that fell into arrears and were sold off. One of the purchasers was a 26 year old real estate agent, John Maloof, who has since profited from publicly exhibiting her works, two other individuals, Jeff Goldstein and Ron Slattery, have Vivian’s photography too. Overall there are about 150,000 photographs in a ‘fractured’ archive between these private individuals. As you will read in the BBC article linked to the documentary, John Maloof seems to show his estate agent tendencies by not granting BBC access to a negative photograph, while Ron and Jeff seem to be more amenable.

The photography uncovered show thousands and thousands of stunning images taken by Vivian during her walks around Chicago. New York and various other places in America and in other countries with one of those old fashioned box cameras. She had a talent for taking photographs that captured people from all walks of their life as they went about town, shopping, working or sleeping in the street because of too much alcohol the night before. Vivian captured a moment in their lives and each image is striking, it is extraordinary how she managed to take such captivating images of people, complete strangers. All her pictures are good, there are no duds, which shows that she had a natural talent and passion for chronicling people and society. But did she share these images with anyone? No, not a soul. She just hoarded them in lockers and in the various rooms that she used to share when working as a nanny. The children she cared for described her as a Mary Poppins character. She never married, or even had a partner and remained a single woman quietly observing the world as she existed in it and capturing her observations on camera. The BBC documentary highlights that she shunned family connections and was not close to her mother, even denying their existence when filling in ID paperwork. It was almost as if she was an angel sent to earth to record people and their lives throughout the decades with a camera. She passed away in her eighties finishing her final days in accommodation organised for her by the children, now grown-up, who she had cared for in the past. 

While I think it is fantastic that her photography was finally uncovered for other people to admire, I think it is a shame that she wasn’t contacted about them before she died. In reading how the young estate agent, John Maloof, came to find the locker for of photographs it is unclear how long he had them while she was still alive and what efforts he made to find her before she died. I would hate to think that he deliberately postponed the public release of the photographs until after her death for convenience and to further his own personal gain from the collection. 

That doesn’t sit right with me either, that her work is with private individuals, it should be in a public archive, gallery or museum. I particularly dislike the overt profiteering by John Maloof – I hope he is at least donating some of the profits to causes that help people in the cities that Vivian photographed. Until I know that for definite I am very reluctant to purchase his books on her and as for watching his film, well…I think the BBC will have done it better justice, the Beeb is, after all a public service.  

For more info on Vivian and to watch the BBC documentary on her visit the BBC’s site.

I am blogging every day to raise money for Unicef. If you are able to help the campaign, please visit my page on Unicef’s site.

Thanks for reading.


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