The story of how the Durham artist and collector Jeff Goldstein came to own several thousand vintage Vivian Maier prints begins, as Goldstein tells it, with “everything from bedbugs to guns.”
Goldstein teases this story on a call from TROSA Thrift Store on North Roxboro Street, one recent Friday afternoon. He’s there collecting items to fashion onto a multi-mirrored selfie booth that he built for Seeing through Vivian Maier’s Eyes: The Vivian Maier Research Project, a two-day showcase that’s part of the sprawling, monthlong Triangle CLICK! Photography Festival.
These vintage prints, which were developed during Maier’s lifetime, have never been shown to the public before.
Later, once he sits down and tells the whole thing, Goldstein’s story lives up to its teaser. But there are so many stories, and scaffolds, to the legendary photographer Vivian Maier’s mythology—a midwestern hall of mirrors reflecting a hundred different stories about art, imagination, privacy, power, and identity—that it’s best to begin with a few basic structural levels.
In 2007, a young auction hunter named John Maloof plunked down $400 for a hefty box of negatives that had been repossessed from a Chicago storage locker previously owned by an ailing elderly woman. As he began to scan the 30,000 images in the box, he grew impressed by their artful, exacting scenes of street life, and he hunted down and purchased other boxes of negatives from the locker. The photographer behind the images, though, remained a mystery until 2009, when Maloof Googled a name scribbled on an envelope: Vivian Maier.
The search pulled up a Chicago Tribune obituary, posted just days before, for a beloved nanny and “photographer extraordinaire.” She had died earlier that week.
That kind of sliding-door moment is a constant in Maier’s story, though it doesn’t define it. Born in 1926, Maier spent her childhood moving between New York City and rural France, where her mother was born. Her adult years took her to New York City, where she worked at a sweatshop, and then to Chicago, where she worked for decades as a nanny. The shape of Maier’s life was one spent on the fringes and this was largely, as far as we know, by choice. She was fiercely independent, describing herself as a kind of “spy” to friends, seeking out bolted doors in the rooms she lived in, and using aliases when she went to get rolls of film developed.
“With the film she was using, there were 12 pictures on a strip,” says Christine Benoodt, the collection manager for Goldstein’s Vivian Maier vintage print collection. “When she was approaching her prime, the people who developed her negatives and prints look at her contact sheets for a strip of 12 and say that she had gallery-level images at a hit of one in three or one in four. That’s almost like a savant level.”
Maier also liked using herself as a subject in photos, appearing with cropped hair and a determined gaze at surprising angles, and sometimes only as a shadow: in the picture but on her own terms. If Maloof had managed to contact her while she was still alive, it’s hard to know how she might have responded,
Her work is celebrated at CLICK! Photography Festival this weekend, with a two-day showcase at the Fruit that includes the exhibit of Goldstein’s collection, a screening of the documentary The Vivian Maier Mystery, a keynote presentation, and a roundtable discussion with the printers who took painstaking care to bring some of her negatives to life.
The festival offers an exceptionally rare chance not just to see her photographs—which have been the subject of heated estate battles for years that have put them behind red tape—but to see works from Goldstein’s private collection that skew from the Chicago street life photos that most people are familiar with, and broaden what we know of Maier’s life and vision.
Included in the exhibition is the first photo she ever took while visiting her childhood home in France, as well as photos of the celebrities she surreptitiously photographed and the crime scenes she haunted.
“There are so many flashes in the pan with artists,” Goldstein says of the attention that Maier’s photos began to attract after the discovery was made. “I was waiting for it to stop. And then it just kept going and going.”
Another scaffold in the posthumous story of Maier’s life: the people who discovered her work—John Maloof and Goldstein, among a few others—and made it their mission to share it with the world.
Mostly these people were men, which makes for a complicated pairing. As recounted in documentaries and biographies by people that knew her, Maier was wary of men. She’d made her own way in life and was fearless, taking the children she nannied all over town and venturing out on her own to the seedier areas, her camera leveled at its usual spot at her chest.
Some scholarship about Maier, including a 2017 biography by Pamela Bannos, is also wary of the men who purchased her photos, suggesting that Maier would have been resistant to her contemporary portrayal.
Several weeks ago at the Durham Farmers Market, Christine Benoodt and Goldstein set up the selfie booth they’d built—an homage to Maier’s predilection for self-portrait—alongside information about the festival and Maier’s work.
According to Benoodt, one woman paused by the booth. Benoodt asked if she’d heard of Maier.
“Yes,” Benoodt recalls the woman saying, “she’s overrated. And men have taken control of her work.”
Goldstein’s part in the story began a decade ago, when he lent money to a friend who was fleeing a bedbug infestation. At the time, Goldstein was an artist in Chicago, and no stranger to the city’s famous outsider artist scene—he recounts selling discounted paper to the eccentric artist Lee Godie—and had heard murmurs of the talent in the boxes of Maier negatives. When the friend he’d lent money to offered to pay him back in 57 Maier prints instead of cash, he reluctantly agreed. An obsession was born. Goldstein now owns the largest collection of vintage Maier prints in private hands.
“If there was dust or hair [on the photos] that we couldn’t easily blow off, we left it there, because we didn’t want to damage it,” Goldstein says, over coffee at Triangle Coffee House. “It’s like archaeology. We were very, very careful with the material.”
Goldstein, who moved to Durham in 2016, is a fourth-generation carpenter and cabinet maker. He has something of a cowboy carriage—when we meet, he’s wearing a worn pink T-shirt and sports a gray soul patch—but he grows earnest and technical when describing the particulars of Maier’s work and how he has cared for it.
The guns part of the story comes when Goldstein bought the third batch of photos from the collector Randy Prow. By this point, interest in Maier had reached somewhat of a mania and the photos’ value had gone up. For the transaction, the two met in a hotel conference room off the highway. Goldstein brought a friend with a gun as protection.
“When you’re carrying $140,000 …” Benoodt trails off. “Well, that’s just a lot of money.”
While it’s a little jarring to hear Maier’s work spoken about in the context of such red-blooded moments, in some ways, it makes sense. She may have flown under the radar, but she didn’t seem afraid of it.
I was first introduced to Maier’s work around 2012, when it began to trickle into the mainstream, through Tumblr—a perfect platform for her photography to take flight (and in fact, it’s fair to wonder if her work would ever have taken off without the internet). I was drawn to the way Maier’s photos tell long stories in nanosecond shots. Like another female midcentury artist, the author Grace Paley, they have the quality of a fragment captured just as the hammer comes down: you can picture Maier capturing, for instance, the quiet moment of emotion in a story like Paley’s “Wants,” which begins “I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I said.”
Her work is often compared to renowned street photographers like Garry Winogrand or Robert Frank, though they stylistically differ: while Frank’s portraits were intentionally muddy and grainy, like the trail of a finger across a windowpane, Maier’s are crisp, minimalist, and well-salted with emotional detail.
The fever pitch around Maier’s work has quieted down, in part because of ongoing tugs-of-war around copyright. The mystery of her life, too, has often overshadowed actual access to it, and she’s never gotten the big retrospective treatment many other artists have—perhaps because of a pervading public belief that the way she was discovered means she is “overrated.” The opportunity to see Maier’s work here, in person—and not in a big city or at a big festival—is a rare one. It may shape the way you, too, see the world.
“We’re here,” Goldstein says. “This is our new home and we’re using this as a passport to integrate ourselves into the art community and to give something back to the community.”
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