The Photographer Nobody Knew: Lessons on Sharing Your Gifts With the World

It was 2007 and John Maloof was working on a book about Chicago’s northwest neighborhoods. On this particular day, he was hoping to find a few pictures from the 1960s that he could use in the book.

What he ended up finding was far more interesting.

After purchasing boxes full of negatives from a local auction house, Maloof began developing some of the images. When they finished processing, he was stunned. They were incredible. And there were tons of them. More than 30,000 in these boxes alone. Whoever had taken these pictures was surely one of the most prolific and talented American photographers of the last hundred years.

And yet, when Maloof looked up the photographer’s name, he couldn’t find her work anywhere else. In fact, after further searching, Maloof was fairly certain that nobody had ever heard of this woman. Her obituary never even mentioned that she was a photographer. She was a mystery, an unknown artist with world-class talent.

“The Greatest Photographic Discovery”

The images discovered by Maloof were taken by a woman named Vivian Maier. [1]

For nearly 40 years, Maier worked as a nanny for wealthy families in Chicago and New York. During her many daily errands, excursions with the family children, and trips to other cities around the United States, Maier took nearly 150,000 photos of the people and architecture that surrounded her.

Maier’s work and backstory fascinated Maloof. Eventually, after processing thousands of images, he collected 100 of the best photos and posted them online.

People loved them. Major newspapers called to run stories about Maier’s work and wanted to know how Maloof discovered the images. Filmmakers called and decided to make two documentaries about the story including Finding Viviam Maier. Galleries began to exhibit her work throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. The uncovering of Vivian Maier’s images has been referred to as the greatest photographic discovery of the 21st century. [2]

The story raises plenty of questions, not just about Maier’s past, but also about our willingness to share our gifts with the world.

Share Your Work

We’ll never know the reasons why Vivian Maier decided to hide her work away in boxes. Maybe she didn’t feel that it was good enough. Maybe she wanted to share it, but didn’t know who to contact. Maybe she simply loved to create and wanted to keep her work private. (The last option seems unlikely as she did make a few attempts to publish her photos.)

Regardless of her reasons, two things are certain. First, the world is a better place because she chose to create something. And second, you shouldn’t wait for someone like John Maloof to share your work with the world.

The story of Vivian Maier is a wonderful reminder that we all carry some brilliance inside of us. But perhaps it is an even better reminder that nobody owes it to you to put your work out into the world. How easily could Maier’s work have been forgotten? How many other brilliant artists, creatives, scientists, and thinkers have their work hidden in boxes or tucked away in attics?

What You Create vs. What You Share

share your work
The world can only benefit from what it can see.

Which talents are you keeping tucked away in boxes? Which ideas are you hesitating to share?

We have a responsibility to share our work with the world, to contribute our talents to this little sliver of the universe. Choose to share your brilliance with the world.

Don’t wait for your John Maloof. Start before you feel ready.

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Sources

  1. About Vivian Maier: History
  2. You can browse some of Vivian Maier’s images at vivianmaier.com.