Thrift store

How a collection of never-before-shown vintage prints by Vivian Maier arrived in Durham

Seeing Through the Eyes of Vivian Maier: The Vivian Maeir Research Project | Saturday October 15 and Sunday October 16, various times | The Fruit, Durham

The story of how Durham artist and collector Jeff Goldstein came to own several thousand vintage prints of Vivian Maier beginning, as Goldstein puts it, with “everything from bed bugs to guns.”

Goldstein teases this story during a call from TROSA Thrift Store on North Roxboro Street on a recent Friday afternoon. He’s here to collect craftables on a multi-mirror selfie booth he built for Seeing Through the Eyes of Vivian Maier: The Vivian Maier Research Project, a two-day showcase that is part of the sprawling 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’s sat down and told it all, Goldstein’s story lives up to its teaser. But there are so many stories and scaffoldings in 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 is best to start with a few basic structural elements. levels.

In 2007, a young auctioneer named John Maloof paid $400 for a large box of negatives that had been salvaged from a Chicago storage locker that had previously belonged to an ailing elderly woman. As he began scanning the 30,000 images in the box, he was impressed by their artful and demanding scenes of street life, and he searched and purchased more boxes of negatives from the locker. The photographer behind the images, however, remained a mystery until 2009, when Maloof Googled a name scrawled on an envelope: Vivian Maier.

The research revealed a Chicago Grandstand obituary, posted a few days earlier, for a beloved nanny and “photographer extraordinaire”. She had passed away earlier this week.

This kind of sliding door moment is a constant in Maier’s story, though he doesn’t define it. Born in 1926, Maier spent her childhood moving between New York and rural France, where her mother was born. Her adult years took her to New York, where she worked in a sweatshop, and then to Chicago, where she worked for decades as a nanny. The shape of Maier’s life was that of a life on the fringes and it was largely, as far as we know, by choice. She was fiercely independent, describing herself as a kind of “spy” to her friends, searching for locked doors in the rooms she lived in, and using pseudonyms when she went to have film developed.

“With the film she was using, there were 12 images on a strip,” says Christine Benoodt, curator of Goldstein’s Vivian Maier vintage print collection. “When she was near her peak, the people who developed her negatives and her prints look at her contact sheets for a strip of 12 and say she had gallery-level images at a shot of one in three or one out of four. It’s almost like a scholar level.

Maier also enjoyed using herself as a subject in photos, appearing with cropped hair and a determined gaze from surprising angles, and sometimes only as a shadow: in the picture but on her own terms. If Maloof had managed to contact her during her lifetime, it’s hard to know how she could have reacted,

His work is celebrated at CLIC! Festival this weekend, with a two-day showcase at The Fruit that includes the exhibition of Goldstein’s collection, a screening of the documentary The Vivian Maier Mysterya keynote address and a panel discussion with the printers who took great pains to bring some of his negatives to life.

The festival offers an exceptionally rare chance not only to see his photographs – which have been the subject of heated real estate battles for years that have put them behind bureaucracy – but to see works from Goldstein’s private collection that stray photos of Chicago street life that most people know and expand on what we know of Maier’s life and vision.

The exhibit includes the first photo she 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 the artists,” Goldstein says of the attention Maier’s photos began to attract after the discovery. “I was waiting for it to stop. And then it went on and on.

Another scaffolding in Maier’s posthumous life story: the people who discovered his work – John Maloof and Goldstein, among a few others – and made it their mission to share it with the world.

Most of these people were male, which makes matching difficult. As documentaries and biographies of people who knew her tell, Maier was wary of men. She had made her own way in life and was fearless, taking the children she babysat all over town and venturing alone into the seediest neighborhoods, her camera trained in its usual spot on her chest.

Some scholarship on Maier, including a 2017 biography of Pamela Bannos, is also wary of the men who bought her photos, suggesting that Maier may have resisted her contemporary portrayal.

A few weeks ago at Durham Farmers Market, Christine Benoodt and Goldstein set up the selfie kiosk they had built, a tribute to Maier’s predilection for self-portraiture, as well as information about the festival and the work of Mayer.

According to Benoodt, a woman stopped near the stand. Benoodt asked if she had heard of Maier.

“Yeah,” Benoodt recalled the woman saying, “she’s overrated. And the men have taken over her work.

Goldstein’s role in the story began ten years 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 foreign artist scene – he recounts selling cut-price paper to eccentric artist Lee Godie – and had heard whispers about talent in boxes of Maier negatives. When the friend he had loaned the money to offered to repay him in 57 Maier prints instead of cash, he reluctantly agreed. An obsession was born. Goldstein now has 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 out, we left it there, because we didn’t want to damage it,” says Goldstein, over coffee at the 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 cabinetmaker. He’s got something of a cowboy car – when we meet he’s wearing a worn pink T-shirt and sporting a gray soul patch – but he gets serious and technical when describing the details of Maier’s work and how he took care of it.

The guns part of the story comes when Goldstein purchased the third batch of photos from collector Randy Prow. By this point, interest in Maier had reached a sort of mania and the value of the photos had increased. For the transaction, the two met in a hotel conference room near the highway. Goldstein brought a friend with a gun for protection.

“When you’re carrying $140,000…” Benoodt trails off. “Well, that’s just a lot of money.”

While it’s a bit shocking to hear about Maier’s work in the context of such bloody times, in some ways it makes sense. She may have flown under the radar, but she didn’t seem afraid of it.

I first discovered Maier’s work around 2012, when it started to trickle into the mainstream, via Tumblr, a perfect platform for his photography to take off (and in fact, he’s just wondering if his work would have ever taken off without the internet).

I was drawn to how Maier’s photos tell long stories in nanoseconds. Like another mid-century female artist, author Grace Paley, they have the quality of a fragment captured just as the hammer falls: you can imagine Maier capturing, for example, the quiet moment of emotion in a story like Paley’s “Wants”, which begins “I saw my ex-husband on the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I say.

His work is often compared to renowned street photographers like Garry Winogrand or Robert Frank, although they differ stylistically: while Frank’s portraits were intentionally muddy and grainy, like a finger print on glass , Maier’s are clean, minimalist and well-salted. with emotional details.

The spike in excitement around Maier’s work has died down, in part because of ongoing copyright tussles. The mystery of her life, too, has often overshadowed actual access to it, and she’s never had the great retrospective treatment that many other artists have – perhaps because of a pervasive 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 major festival – is rare. It can also shape the way you see the world.

“We are here,” Goldstein said. “It’s our new home and we’re using it as a passport to integrating ourselves into the arts community and giving back to the community.”

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