CHICAGO (AP) — A messy legal fight over copyrights to streetscape photos shot by a Chicago nanny whose life is chronicled in “Finding Vivian Maier,” which is nominated for an Oscar on Sunday, threatens to slow or even stop new releases of her once-unknown work that has become a sensation only after her death.
The enigmatic Maier died penniless five years ago with no will, no obvious heirs and no inkling that the more than 150,000 photographs she snapped in her spare time in Chicago and New York from the 1950s onward would become so prized. Now, two men she never knew are tussling over who holds the rights to print, sell and display the images she created.
Maier’s intimate and often-gritty photography, which she made no attempt to sell commercially in her lifetime, focused on everyday people, rich and poor, and captures the flavor of a bygone era. Since interest in her work exploded, prints of her photographs have sold for thousands of dollars.
Center stage in the dispute is John Maloof, a 33-year-old former Chicago real estate agent who features in and co-directs the documentary. He bought a box full of Maier’s negatives at auction for $400 from a repossessed storage locker in 2007. He now owns the vast majority of her work, more than 100,000 images that are mostly in negatives or undeveloped film. He traced Maier’s whereabouts in the Chicago area in 2009, just days after she died at age 83.
Maloof defends his project — now his full-time job — of managing his Maier collection. Years going through negatives, and paying for professional restorers and printers has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Until recently, he either lost money or just broke even, he said.
“My life is 100 percent on this project,” he said. “It is a blessing and a curse.”
It was Virginia-based David Deal, a longtime commercial photographer who read about Maier as he completed a law degree, who sparked the legal fight by filing a notice in a Chicago probate court last summer. Deal’s filing identifies a relative of Maier’s in France, retired bureaucrat Francis Baille, as Maier’s closest relative — a first cousin once removed. Deal says that makes him Maier’s rightful heir.
Illinois law is straightforward: The closest living relative is the heir, period. Whether Maier disliked a relative or didn’t know the person existed is no factor, said Patty Gerstenblith, a DePaul University law professor.
Baille, said Deal, had never heard of Maier.
No one disputes Maloof rightly owns the negatives. But ownership doesn’t confer copyrights, like owning a music CD doesn’t give someone rights to reproduce and sell it.
Maloof believes he has copyrights, though he concedes that issue isn’t settled. His basis is a different Frenchman he contends is Maier’s closest relative, Sylvain Jaussaud, also described as a first cousin once removed. Jaussaud, who did know Maier and appears in the film, signed over copyrights to Maloof, he said.
Deal argues that Maloof should have launched probate proceedings himself years earlier to establish who Maier’s heirs were, and says it’s Maloof’s own fault Maier’s growing ranks of fans could be deprived of much of her work.
“We wouldn’t be in this position today if he’d not cut legal corners,” Deal said.
“That’s garbage,” responds Maloof. He did exhaustive genealogy research and knew of Baille, he said. But he ruled him out after a French judge determined he wasn’t as close a relative as Deal asserts.
Maloof says a probate filing wasn’t required. But once Deal took that step, it set off a drawn-out legal process. It also means the players now include Cook County, which by law represents Maier’s estate in the interim.
To avoid the legal headache, an owner of a far smaller collection of Maier’s photography sold it all to a Canadian gallery.
The county could cut a deal right away with Maloof, possibly letting him reproduce her work with some profits going into escrow until the heir question is resolved. Maloof said Thursday a recent meeting with county lawyers left him more optimistic. Officials, he said, understand the intense interest in Maier.
“They don’t want to shut us down,” Maloof said. “I am confident something can be worked out.”