A few months ago, I walked into the Steven Kasher Gallery to catch the exhibition of Vivian Maier: Unseen Images. I had been following the story of Vivian Maier, who spent 40 years of her life working as a nanny in both Chicago and New York. On her days off, she wandered the streets of these cities accompanied only by her Rolleiflex camera. She shot people and store windows, streetscapes, and captured tiny moments we often overlook in our quest to get from point A to point B. Despite this, she never set up a shot. She simply looked through her viewfinder, clicked once, and kept walking. That confidence and boldness comes across in all of her images — though Vivian Maier probably did not know this herself, since most of her rolls of film remained undeveloped or only existed in negative form. She was never discovered or lauded for her work. She died quietly in Chicago in 2009. A few years earlier, 100,000 of Ms. Maier’s negatives, 2,000 undeveloped rolls of film, were discovered in a commercial storage unit . 30,000 of those negatives were auctioned off for $400 to a man named John Maloof. He then found other buyers to acquire the remainder of the negatives. Maloof didn’t know what he had until he began scanning the images and posting them to Flickr, where people started to comment. Then, this news story on Maloof’s find went viral, and the rest became internet history.
As someone who spent high school behind a camera or in my school’s dark room, I was drawn to this story. In college, I had put down my camera and pursued fleshing out my images through words and sentences. It wasn’t until I got an iPhone in 2009 that I remembered how much I loved taking pictures. Once I started clicking, I never stopped. My style is similar to Maier’s in that I click once and move on. If I get it, great. If I don’t, the image stays burned on my brain and eventually finds its way into words on a page. Where we differ is that I will process my photo through different filter styles before settling on one fixed image. Then, I upload it to my photo Tumblr. Everything I shoot passes by my eyes more than once. But, in this digital world, rarely do I print my images. They never get the opportunity to breath beyond the pixels of a computer screen.
All of these reasons sent me into the Kasher gallery that day, where one of the other buyers of Maier’s negatives, Jeff Goldstein, had put together a show of Vivian’s work. I walked past the Weegee photographs and into the corner where Maier’s work was displayed. I took my time in front of each image. There was humor, life, sadness, and utter realness. I stood there alone for a long time before an older man came into the gallery and joined my viewing party. He also took his time examining each photograph. I sensed something different about the way he looked, with an intense personal connection. We struck up a conversation and I learned his name is Ron Gordon and he is the person responsible for printing Vivian’s images. He got to see what she did not, that magical moment when chemicals react and an image begins to appear, ghost-like at first, and then solid and sharp in the chemical bath. He toured me through each image, talking about the framing, shading, and how he decided on the printing process, as each was unique. He used the best phrase to describe Vivian’s style of capturing her subjects: “She was out so much, the moments started to find her. She wore her camera around her neck like jewelry.” We stood in front of the last image, one I kept coming back to, lingering over. I felt like I could have a conversation with the photograph forever. Endless stories were housed in this 20 x 20 image and I wanted to know them all.
It never occurred to me, walking into that gallery, into any gallery, that I could afford to buy something on its walls. Not that I had any business buying something, being a freelancer with a meager savings account. But I looked in the book, saw the price and thought, I could do this. And, after some additional homework, I did. I was taken to a back room, shown the remainder of the prints that were left (only 15 are printed from each negative) and chose one. I put down a deposit. The print was sent to the framer and three weeks and a few more payments later, the photograph is now mine.
I still marvel at the fact that, by owning this photograph, I become a part of Vivian Maier’s story, of a moment she captured with her Rolleiflex, of the street hustler gazing directly at her, with a face as storied as they come.