John Maloof, the man who took Vivian Maier from the storage bin to the Academy Awards

John Maloof in this Northwest Side stomping grounds. Photo by Megan Boguszko

John Maloof is less than two weeks away from going to the Academy Awards to see if his first film brings home the Oscar for Best Documentary — but he’s been so busy dealing with recent legal wrangling and calls from reporters, that he hasn’t had much time to embrace the excitement.

By now, most people know the story of John Maloof. He’s the 33-year-old Northwest Side guy who in 2007 was working as a Realtor and writing a book on the history of Portage Park when he happened upon a foot locker full of photo negatives at an auction. Seeing that some of the negatives contained images of Chicago, he decided to buy the box hoping to use the pictures in the book that he was working on with his friend and fellow local historian Daniel Pogorzelski.

We now know that those negatives turned out to be pictures taken over many years by Vivian Maier, an unknown photographer who worked as a nanny. Of course, Maloof didn’t know that at the time, nor did he know if the photos were of any quality. After going through some of the pictures, he knew there was something special to them, which led him to buy several more boxes that were part of the set from the other people who initially purchased them at the auction. In all, he owns about 100,000 Vivian Maier negatives, or about 90 percent of her known work.

It’s easy to think that Maloof bought what turned out to be a treasure chest, akin to someone on “Antiques Roadshow” who discovers that the old painting in his attic was actually done by an French Impressionist master.  That would be wrong. If not for his tenacity and his intuition, none of us would likely have ever heard of Vivian Maier. It was his research, and countless hours of investigating at his own expense that led to the discovery and the story that has captivated the photography world for the last several years.

Maloof tracked down former employers and friends, going so far as to hire genealogists to trace Maier’s roots and traveling to the south of France to find a first cousin once removed — Sylvain Jaussand — and reaching an agreement with him. He also bought thousands of dollars worth of scanning equipment to scan the negatives.

Initially turned down by prominent galleries and told that the photos were of average quality, Maloof kept at it, getting validation in 2009 after posting some on Flickr, and having thousands of people express interest and receiving offers to exhibit them. The first Vivian Maier exhibit took place in 2010 and since then her work has been exhibited twenty-seven times, from Chicago to Los Angeles,  New York, Denmark, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, and Russia.

To make back some of the $80,000 to $100,000 he spent scanning the work (which is yet to be completed) and researching the story of Maier,  Maloof sells prints through the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York. He has also edited three books on Vivian Maier, (there are two additional books by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams) and of course, co-directed and co-produced the documentary film, “Finding Vivian Maier” with Charlie Siskel.

The photo exhibits had been held (future exhibits are also in the works), the books are in bookstores, the movie (and a BBC documentary as well) was already completed, when in June 2014, lawyer and former photographer David Deal filed a suit challenging the rights of Maloof and other current owners of Maier’s negatives to commercialize them.

Deal, according to published reports, said his fascination with Maier’s work sparked concerns that Maloof and others selling her images were violating federal copyright law. Deal even went so far as to find another man in France who is also believed to be Maier’s first cousin once removed — Francis Baille.

Maloof may have inadvertently left the door open for a challenge because he didn’t register with the county court for Vivian’s cousin (Sylvain Jaussaud) to be recognized as an heir, thus leaving the issue of copyright up in the air by not seeking to settle her estate.

Despite that, Maloof remains confident that he ‘won’t be punished for his hard work’ but admitted that it has taken away from the excitement of the Oscars. For Rogers Park artist Jeffrey Goldstein, who owns the remaining ten percent of Maier’s work, the legal questions became such a stressful situation that he recently sold his negatives to a gallery owner in Canada.

It is not known when or how the issue will ultimately be resolved by the Cook County court, but while one part of the government is providing headaches for Maloof, another segment is honoring him. On Sunday, Maloof received a House Resolution from the Illinois House of Representatives, presented to him by Rep. Robert F. Markwick (D-19) before a screening of “Finding Vivian Maier” at the Portage Theater.  On February 22nd, Maloof with go from the red cement of the Portage Theater to the red carpet of the 87th Academy Awards, where “Finding Vivian Maier” is one of five films up for Best Feature Documentary.

The Chicago Ambassador met up with Maloof and Pogorzelski at the Perkolator coffee shop in Portage Park, which in a way was coming full circle for them. The book that sparked the purchase of the negatives was on Portage Park and the Perkolator is owned by Joe and Melissa Basilone — Melissa being the editor for Arcadia Publishing, which published their book on Portage Park. There, along with his childhood friend Pogorzelski, Maloof talked about the wild ride that his life has been since that day at the auction in 2007.

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Daniel Pogorzelski, Melissa Baslione and John Maloof. Photo by Megan Boguszko

Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.

CA) Do you get recognized now?

MALOOF) Not really, I don’t leave. (laughs). Unless I’m around photographers. Every photographer seems to know the story.

CA) You were working as a Realtor in 2007 and working with Daniel Pogorzelski on a book on Portage Park for Arcadia Publishing when you went to an auction and bought a chest full of photo negatives for $380 thinking you could use some for the book. They turned out to be more than 30,000 negatives of photos that Vivian Maier took. First of all, was Dan with you?

MALOOF) He went with me. There were a lot of attempts I made of going to the auction that didn’t pan out.

POGORZELSKI) (to John) The first time you saw them, I remember you telling me about them. Then we went together.

CA) Where was it?

MALOOF) On Milwaukee Avenue, near Six Corners.

CA) (to POGORZELSKI) – Do you ever kick yourself that you didn’t buy the photos with John?

POGORZELSKI) No, no, not at all. This is what most people don’t understand. The thing is, there were photos that were found, but there are many photos that are always found. I thought they were great photos, but John really believed in them. At the time, we had been friends for a long time, I was an usher at his wedding. John discovered Vivian Maier, not because there weren’t other people that saw it (the negatives), but we are talking about something that became almost like a religion. John is a person who is into local history and into local historic preservation. I was the one more into photos, but this thing rekindled it for John. He became like an apostle for Vivian Maier and he was ridiculed by some at the time…. It’s like if you go to a dance. One guy may say she’s pretty, another guy says ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’

CA) I think a lot of people think you bought this box of negatives and the next thing you know, the story was well-known. But you put a ton of work into this. You bought the scanning equipment, etc.

MALOOF) Yes. I’m not going to go through the whole list. First off, I wasn’t a photographer. The work got me into photography.

CA) I don’t need you to go through the history, but it was a lot more than just finding negatives.

MALOOF) Yes, the thing is, how many people have archives out there? A lot of people. How many people have the time to go through it? You can’t just open up a contact sheet and say, ‘Oh my God, this is a great photographer and everything here is great.’ It takes a long time to go through everything.

POGORZELSKI) John wasn’t really into photography at the time. So people who supposedly knew more about photography would say ‘These photos, they’re average, they’re not that good.’ It was almost like John’s persistence that would say ‘ok, you’re an expert’ but deep inside of him he really felt like something more was there.

MALOOF) (to Pogorzelski) You don’t have to be a cheerleader for me, I think he gets it.

CA) You also tracked down others who bought the other boxes of negatives. Have you ever heard from any of those people? One has to wonder if they are kicking themselves now.

MALOOF) The thing is, they would have never done the work. They have jobs. Even people who gave me stuff for free were like ‘I would never do anything with it.’

CA) You bought the negatives in 2007. The first story ran in “Chicago Magazine” in 2009?

MALOOF) I think it was late 2009 or early 2010.

CA) And in between the time you were doing all the work?

MALOOF) Yes.

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John Maloof, with his ever-present camera. Photo by Megan Boguszko

 

CA) It has to be a crazy time for you with this legal mess right now?

MALOOF) A lot of it is blown out of proportion.

CA) What’s your opinion of David Deal?

MALOOF) I don’t know. I have no opinion because I’ve never talked to him. Everything that he’s said has been published, I can read it. It’s not much. I don’t think he takes into account that if it wasn’t for the hard work that I put in no one would know who Vivian Maier was and neither would he.

CA) In a recent “Chicago Tribune” article it is reported that you didn’t register with the county court for Vivian’s cousin (Sylvain Jaussaud) to be recognized as an heir and left the issue of copyright up in the air by not seeking to settle her estate. Do you regret that?

MALOOF) I didn’t even know. I called the public administrator’s office, I have my notes and call records to prove it. They said we don’t deal with copyrights. Then I called the copyright office and they said I had to find an heir — which I did. I was told by the government to go down the path I did. So, I don’t regret it because I didn’t know I had to do that.  Anytime a photographer is gone and the work is of value, and the value is made after the death — If I didn’t do the work, her stuff would be worth $380. Nobody would even know. I have photos in my basement from other photographers that I haven’t even had time to look at, but they are worth what I paid.

CA) So you have other photos from different photographers?

MALOOF) I buy stuff at estate sales. I buy old photos, I buy negatives. It’s not like I have another Vivian Maier, let’s definitely get that on the record. A lot of people do that. I know a lot of people who buy slides. I guarantee every weekend that you go on estatesales.net that you’ll see slides. Somebody buys them.

CA) Jeffrey Goldstein just sold the negatives he had. If this was 2007 and you would know the headaches that you might have down the road, would you do the same thing, before the books, before the movie?

MALOOF) Sell them?

CA) Yeah?

MALOOF) No. That was never a thought.

CA) Recently it was reported that you’ve put future books and exhibit plans on hold for the time being?

MALOOF) Future books are on hold but they were on hold. I think the last book I did, for me, that was the book I always wanted to do. I told everybody, I’m not doing another book for a long time. I don’t want to burn everybody out on Vivian Maier. So that was already on hold.

CA) Right now, is this taking any excitement out of the Academy Awards?

MALOOF) Umm, yeah. I’m always on the phone trying to figure out what we’re going to do, so yeah.

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John Maloof.       Photo by Megan Boguszko.

 

CA) Have you seen any of the other films that are nominated?

MALOOF) I saw “Virunga”, “Citizen Four” and they’re great. I haven’t seen the other two yet but I want to.  (“Last Days in Vietnam” and “The Salt of the Earth”).

CA) What was it like to get into film directing and producing? Was it something that you ever dreamed about?

MALOOF) I did little experimental videos growing up but I never took it seriously like, ‘I’m a filmmaker.’ When I started this, I knew that I had a story that I thought people wanted to hear. I needed to figure out how to make a film that was good enough to tell the story. I had to learn. I watched a movie or two a day for a couple years, documentaries. I kinda soaked it all in. I made a lot of mistakes shooting stuff with different cameras. When you pick up a film camera for the first time, especially after doing photography, your framing is all off, the lighting — everything looks so amateur. So I had to learn. It took a long time. I took hundreds of hours of footage and it boiled down to 83 minutes.

CA) How did you hook up with Charlie Siskel?

MALOOF) Through Jeff Garlin, who is the executive producer. I needed another co-director, somebody with hands-on experience.

CA) You have about 100,000 negatives. Have you finally gone through them all?

MALOOF) No, there is still about 600 rolls of film, (approximately 22,000 pictures).

CA) Besides your three books and your film, there are two other books and a BBC documentary. Did you ever fear over-saturation?

MALOOF) I don’t think there’s over-saturation. There’s a lot of her work.

CA) It’s pretty ironic that the County is giving you headaches and you just received a House Resolution to honor you from State Rep. Robert Martwick. Have you heard from any lawmakers privately about their opinions?

MALOOF) No, I haven’t. Of course everybody thinks this should be handled with some sort of fairness because everything was done with good intentions.

CA) Let me give you a hypothetical. Let’s assume you lose any claim to her work. The books are out there. People have seen the exhibits all over the world. And then there’s the film. Would that be any kind of saving grace?

MALOOF) Oh, of course. Worst case scenario, I did expose her work for people to enjoy. As long as it doesn’t go back into a cardboard box, as long as it’s treated with respect, I think I’ll be happy with it. It could have gone in a lot of different directions. If I didn’t contact the galleries, I could have easily gone through a small press to print a photo book and not learned anything about her.

I had to pay for all the stuff and also get paid back. The books and the exhibits lost money a lot of times. The work kept you going. If you had constant attention by the press about the archive, you’d know you were doing something good. Your work is being validated and that feels good.

CA) How did the story first get out? This story has been covered by media from all over the world.

MALOOF) The only place I ever reached out to was Chicago Magazine. I turned down Brian Williams. It was becoming so over the top.

CA) Any idea when the legal questions will be resolved?

MALOOF) I’m hopeful that it will be resolved in the next few months.

CA) Any predictions for the Oscar?

MALOOF) First off, not even the nomination — just to be short-listed is incredible. It’s an honor. It’s my first film.

 

The 2015 Oscar Awards take place February 22 in Hollywood. “Finding Vivian Maier” can be seen on Netflix and iTunes.

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