Chicago Collector Recalls First Box of Vivian Maier Photos

Vivian Maier Photo from Wikipedia

The man who says he discovered the work of currently celebrated photographer Vivian Maier also says her best work has not been seen yet. Chicago resident Ron Slattery says he noticed a box of photographs in an auction there and would go on to buy two more lots containing Maier’s work.

“At the first auction, no one bought photographs,” Slattery recalls. “I had to make a couple trips out to the car I had so much stuff.

“I had no idea who she was when I bought them although her name was written all over the boxes of stuff,” he says. “There was no awareness of her whatsoever. I was the first one to buy her work.”

Slattery says only 6,000 of her prints are known to exist. He has 2,000. If you consider the current asking price at galleries, those lots culled from the contents of storage units could be worth millions.

Photo Courtesy Ron Slattery

Two years before her death, an auctioneer bought the contents from Maier’s storage units and set them under the hammer.

With an exhibit in London and one in Chicago, the life and work of Vivian Maier are still being discovered. She was either born in New York or France to French and Austrian parents. Slattery says Vivian and her mother went back to France during the war years where Vivian started shooting photographs of the French Alps around 1949. In 1951 she came to America, and ended up in Cuba, followed by a move back to New York, finally arriving in Chicago in 1956. There, while not on duty as a nanny, would walk the streets taking photos with her Rolleiflex camera.

According to the Wikipedia entry, for a brief period in the 1970s, Maier worked as a nanny for Phil Donahue’s children.

The sale of her work at auction in 2007 has resulted in three primary owners. Ron Slattery says he was the first to purchase her work. Chicago real estate agent John Maloof also bought a box of negatives from the third auction and would later add to that collection. In the spring of 2010, Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a portion of the Vivian Maier collection. Maloof has announced his intention to publish a photo book of Maier’s photography.

While Maier’s photos have been in galleries and exhibitions, and in the early days sold on eBay bringing $80-$100 a piece, Slattery hasn’t sold or shown his stash. He also wonders if a blood relative of Maier’s will surface to claim intellectual property ownership.

Slattery says the best work seems to be in the prints Maier produced herself. While he did receive some rolls of film, the ones he developed were not her best work in his estimation.

Photo Courtesy Ron Slattery

“Towards the end, she didn’t seem to be able to develop much of her stuff, but then again her photography changed,” Slattery says. “The roles of film that I developed were pictures of newspapers on the ground over and over. There wasn’t anything that was knocking my socks off.”

Slattery says he has some nanny shots, as well as images of New York, Chicago, and Cuba plus travels to the Southeast, China, and Thailand.

“I have no idea what I want to do with them,” Slattery says. “I’d like to show them somewhere. I am sure I’ll sell some at some point, I don’t know when.

Slattery’s discovery came after a life-long interest in vernacular photography, stretching back to the 1970s. Some of it came from rummaging through trash.

“We lived in a lot of crappy apartment buildings,” Slattery recalls. “We didn’t have this kind of foreclosure process. At the end of the month if you didn’t pay your rent the landlord just kicked you out and threw all your stuff out so it was kind of like free candy day for people who garbage pick.”

Today he’s happy he was able to save thousands of prints from the woman who could one day be considered one of America’s great photographers. A photographer he can, at least in part, be credited with discovering.

“I like her photos because they are innocent,” Slattery says. “You can tell she relates to each one of her subjects and her personality comes through. She was able to get through on a personal basis. Part of it was her personality as a nanny and part of it was her camera. She was looking down, not looking people in the eye. There’s no weird discomfort. No sense of ‘oh, I’m having my picture taken.'”

Photo Courtesy Ron Slattery

Slattery says Maier thought of herself as a serious photographer.

“She had a lot of photography books and was a student of them,” he says. “She was taking photos at the same time the Institute of Design people were out there– the kids studying under Callahan and Sisken. I don’t know if they crossed paths– she seemed to do her own thing.”

Exhibits of Maier’s work have been held at the Chicago Cultural Center and more recently at the London Street Photography Festival. Slattery says there’s definitely a mass appeal. He adds once again, however…

“Her best work really hasn’t been brought out yet.”

One thought on “Chicago Collector Recalls First Box of Vivian Maier Photos

  1. Thank you for a great article! An important discovery and much to Mr. Slattery’s credit that he purchased the (then unknown) Vivian Maier photographs at auction and has kept his collection intact.


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