The diary of an unknown photographer

Long before blogs and photo blogs came to define a digital age, Vivian Maier maintained her own personal record of the people and places she came into contact with. Her output was prolific – she left behind over 100,000 black and white negatives and about 20-30,000 color slides ranging from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. Another 2,000 rolls of undeveloped film lay undiscovered in her personal storage locker before it was auctioned owing to a backlog of payments in 2009. A real estate agent named John Maloof researching a book on the history of Chicago attended the auction. A fascinating discussion on Flickr reveals John Maloof’s own discovery of the collection he had acquired for just $400. He was completely unaware of the value of what he had chanced upon. When he saw the quality of the photographs, he set up a blog. And a rare tapestry of ordinary life from the 50s is slowly coming to light.

Vivian Maier did not have a high profile life. She was a Jewish refugee from wartime France. Holding a succession of jobs as a nanny, she poured all her free time into documenting life around her. The impression she gave to others, according to Maloof was, ‘keep your distance from me’. The fact that she left so much of her work unexposed shows that she did not have the means to develop her photographs. Maybe that’s just another lucky coincidence since her negatives are now being treated as a treasure trove of historical and cultural significance. She always bought a particular brand of Kodak film and her black and white work is seen as superior to the work in colour.

Francis Fukuyama makes an impassioned case for analog over digital. He points out that the ‘analog’ photographs have over 200 times the information contained in today’s high-end DSLR images. Pixels are no match for the intensity and the saturation of analog grains. Today, we have huge digital photography collections documenting everything from families to sports and the news growing by the second. But Vivian Maier has achieved what she never set out to do – immortality through her hobby. The very ordinariness of daily life seen through her perspective will now give filmmakers, historians and costume designers a sense of how much has changed in the intervening decades. And fame will not make a difference – she died unknown in 2009

.Update: There’s a great documentary on Vivian Maier’s life –  Finding Vivian Maier. And if you’d like to see more of her work, there’s a section devoted to her at Artsy. She has left behind a legacy that’s truly unique