A legal battle over Vivian Maier’s estate has put the work on indefinite hold as the courts decide who owns the copyright. In spite of this controversy, Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery decided to buy Jeffrey Goldstein’s entire collection Vivian Maier negatives. I sat down with Stephen to get his perspective on the legal battle and discuss how his purchase affects the future of Vivian Maier’s work. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Finding Vivian Maier
Most street photographers have heard of Vivian Maier by now. As the story goes, John Maloof bought a box full of negatives at an auction and had no idea it would send him on a journey around the world as he tracked down the life and times of the elusive nanny photographer. He posted a few of the pics to the Hardcore Street Photography Flickr group and was overwhelmed by the positive response. The film “Finding Vivian Maier” chronicles his efforts to piece together Vivian’s life in a meaningful way.
As it turns out there are a few people that own some number of Vivian’s negatives but the two largest collections belong to John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein. The two worked together to purchase the last batch of negatives from Randy Prow and have had a peaceful relationship.
John and Jeffrey hired an esteemed genealogist who was able to track down who he believed to be Vivian’s closest living heir. Maloof secured the rights to Vivian’s work for an undisclosed sum and Jeffrey purchased the copyright for his negatives from John. The two believed that they had reasonable legal foundation to market and promote the work moving forward.
Owning Vivian Maier
All of this came under fire when a lawyer named David Deal tracked down another cousin who he believed to be the rightful heir and an estate was established in Vivian’s name. In an instant, the entire collection became the center of a long term dispute governed by obscure copyright and estate laws.
Once this took place Jeffrey Goldstein immediately suspended operation and pulled his collection from galleries until the courts could decide on the rightful heir. The future of Jeffrey’s collection was in question until Stephen Bulger stepped up to protect legacy of Vivian’s work.
Stephen Bulger Gallery
The Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto is one of the preeminant photo galleries in the world and is focused on the exhibition and sale of international contemporary and historical photographs. The gallery maintains an inventory of approximately 15,000 photographs with a special emphasis on works that define the documentary tradition. Stephen was the Canadian representative for Jeffrey Goldstein’s collection and has a unique perspective on the Vivian Maier story.
StreetShootr: What’s your relationship to the Vivian Maier story?
Stephen Bulger: Well, like a lot of people I first heard about Vivian Maier in the New York Times article and her story intrigued me. Then I saw her photographs and the more photographs I saw, the more intrigued I got by the story.
SS: Some people have had a problem with the way that her work has been handled after her death. That it’s just a commodity and not an expression of the artist’s intent because she isn’t guiding the process. What’s your response to this?
Bulger: Right, with Vivian we’re all just left in the dark with her intent. But I’d argue that her photographs are the true creative expression of her work. When I’m looking at her work, I’m very conscious of the fact that she didn’t go out and circle this on a contact sheet and tell someone in a very particular way that this image or that image was her choice. But knowing what’s going on in terms of the decision-making process of galleries and how images go from negative to the gallery wall, there’s a lot of rigor in the selection and creation of the prints. I’m not offended by it.
SS: I think we’d be foolish to think that photographers would have that much say than what work appears in shows. Everything is edited whether it’s for a book or a gallery – someone is editing the images at some point.
Bulger: Well, a lot of them, definitely. First it’s edited and usually with someone’s help and that’s beyond the photographer’s control. Then, it goes through a series of different filters from friends and colleagues to critics and dealers.
SS: It’s the same process but the only difference is Vivian is no longer with us.
Bulger: Exactly. For me it’s like finding a lost score and wondering if that was supposed to be found or not? Did the composer think this was his greatest work or had he meant to burn it and he missed the fireplace. The work exists either way and deserves to be seen.
All we’re dealing with right now is the evidence that we’ve been left with and unfortunately there is no diary, I guess there’s one letter that she addressed to a printer she used in France. For me, that’s quite revealing because she seems to acknowledge that she was good enough to have someone else print for the purpose of having other people look at them. To me this indicates a desire to be recognized as a photographer.
SS: I think a lot of people heard of Vivian Maier as a result of John Maloof’s documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. But I’m not sure a lot of people realize that there is more to the story than John Maloof himself.
Bulger: Okay, so there were five storage lockers that Vivian had kept that contained a lot of her personal effects. During her lifetime, she stopped making payments on the storage lockers for whatever reason. When this happens the lockers are typically auctioned off to recover any outsanding rent.
A man named Roger Gunderson bought all 5 lockers for $50 each. He would normally throw most of the stuff away but the photos were in good boxes that were labelled with things like Paris, New York and Chicago, so he thought they may be valuable. He divided them off into 30 or 40 separate lots and over two to three weeks, sold them to around a number of individuals.
John Maloof was one of those original buyers and owns the largest share of Vivian Maier negatives – around 150,000 negatives I believe. In addition to John you have Jeffrey Goldstein whose collection is smaller at around 17,500 negatives. The two worked together to purchase the final block of negatives from a third party and hired a geneologist to track down Vivian’s heir. Copyright agreements were made and Vivian’s work has been shown around the world.
SS: Bulger Gallery has been closely associated with Jeffrey Goldstein’s collection of Vivian Maier negatives. As I understand it, Jeffrey decided to suspend his operation when copyright claims were made by both David Deal and Cook County in Illinois. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Bulger: It all comes down to the rightful heir to Vivian Maier’s estate. Cook County has determined that Charles Maier, Vivian’s brother, is the only legitimate heir. The problem is that he changed his name and disappeared sometime in the fifties. The geneologist that Jeffrey and John hired was unable to determine his new last name and could not trace down any marriages or children. The geneologist was, however, able to identify a first cousin in Europe as the closest living heir to Vivian Maier.
This was contested by attorney David Deal who believes another cousin is the rightful heir.
Cook County has determined that both David Deal and John Maloof are wrong. The say Charles Maier is the one true heir and the law provides him 6 years to make a claim. In the meantime, Cook County has set up an estate and I assume they would like to generate some income from the estate by licensing rights to use the images because they say they control the copyright. They have asked Jeffrey and John for all of the digital files so that they could start licensing the work out.
I have not been involved with these discussions, but it appears that Cook County is trying to make all decisions and just give John and Jeffrey a small percentage of whatever revenues would be generated. However you look at it this is going to be tied up for years. This is why Jeffrey Goldtein suspended operation until the matter could be resolved.
SS: That was shocking news to a lot of people. I mean why would he just stop everything?
Bulger: You know, he suspended a lot of his life to work on the Vivian Maier project for the last 5 years and he’s just thinking it’s time to go back to his former life. He can’t afford any sort of legal fees if anything does get drawn out. In the end Jeffrey sort of thought that these negatives are a liability. As it stands he can’t really do anything with them.
We get along really well and we were talking one day and in the end we agreed that a good way forward was for me to purchase his collection of Vivian Maier negatives.
And so we worked out a price that we both agreed to and on Wednesday of this week (December 17, 2014) I purchased Jeffrey Goldstein’s entire collection of Vivian Maier negatives.
SS: So you’re in possession of the negatives now?
SS: Can I see them?
Bulger: No, actually we’ve got them stored off site in a museum-quality storage facility.
SS: How many negatives are in the collection?
Bulger: There’s approximately 17,500 negatives which represents about 15% of the entire Vivian Maier collection. It’s a fraction of what John Maloof has. But unlike the Maloof collection, I think more of it has been seen because Jeffrey has been quite open for people to go and visit and look through the collection.
For example, when Richard Cahan and Michael Williams wanted to do that first book, Out of the Shadows, Jeffrey had no financial interest in the book at all and he didn’t charge them any user fees for any of the pictures. Which meant that they could make a much larger book than they had anticipated. You would normally be paying $300 – $500 dollars per image which would limit the book to 60-70 pictures. But Jeffrey not charging anything for thier usage they were able to put together a book with several hundred photographs.
When I wanted to do a follow up exhibition just related to her photographs of children, Jeffrey gave me free access and I looked through the digital files. And I was able to select pictures that Jeffrey may have never thought of printing and out of an exhibition of about 30 images there were 10-15 that had never been seen before. And that was just because Jeffrey gave me free access to see everything and pick the shots I wanted.
SS: Does the collection include any prints or is it just negatives?
Bulger: Just the negatives. I’d have to get permission from Cook County to do anything with these negatives.
SS: So you’re bound by the same copyright issues that caused Jeffrey Goldstein to sell the negatives in the first place?
Bulger: My understanding is that I can’t do anything with these negatives until Cook County allows me to do something with them.
My intention was to preserve the collection. The ownership of the negatives isn’t in question so there’s virtually no legal risk in the transaction. The only thing that’s fallen into question is who controls the copyright. From my perspective, the people that say that they control the copyright haven’t been that clear about what their intentions are in terms of how they want to move forward. So making sure that they are in some way preserved made sense to me.
SS: What is your vision for the collection? Do you see a way that the work can be displayed and shown again?
Bulger: I would hope that at some point we could just go back to doing what we were doing before. It certainly seems to be what the public wants. I’ve never seen so much public enthusiasm about a single photographer’s work before. People were flocking to the Vivian Maier exhibition that would never go to a photography or art gallery. There’s something about Vivian that seems to break those boundaries.
People are interested in her for many different reasons. And I think also that there is this nostalgia in her photographs that people yearn for. And then in terms of the early 50s and 60s pictures and then the photographs that she was taking in the 70s that seemed to be a bit darker she certainly seems to have won over a lot of photography critics because they see a sophistication in the work that isn’t just about simple nostalgia.There’s lots of different reasons for people being fascinated by her work and I would hope that we could just go back to supporting it.
I think that John and Jeffrey have done a lot to get this woman out there to a point where people are considering her work and trying to figure out where she fits into the lexicon of photography. There’s only so much I can do with about 15% of the collection but I would hope to do as good a job as Jeffrey in getting Vivian’s name out there and satistying the public hunger for her work.
SS: It’s ironic how everything seems to have come full circle. Vivian’s negatives are back in a storage locker and nobody can see her work.
Bulger: I’m hoping that Cook County would want to do something with the material. Although they own copyright they don’t have anything tangible. They need me as much as I would need them, but I’m sure I’ll find out more once Cook County gives me a call.
Karl Edwards launched StreetShootr.com in 2014 with its mission to provide news, reviews and inspiration for street and documentary photographers. He is a graduate of Ryerson University, Toronto and continues to practice street photography while thoughtfully engaging and collaborating with other artists in the genre.