Finding Vivian Maier’s heir: could a copyright claim put the distribution of her work on hold?

by Felix Esser

posted Tuesday, September 9, 2014 at 9:01 AM EST


Vivian Maier is probably the most famous street photographer who saw no publicity during her lifetime. Working as a nanny for about forty years, Maier is said to have taken more than 150,000 photographs, mostly in Chicago and New York. But it was only after her death in 2009 that her photography was publicly noticed.

In fact, her posthumous fame is largely to be attributed to the efforts of Chicago historian John Maloof, who acquired part of her legacy in 2007, when the contents of a storage space that Maier had rented, but was unable to pay for, was auctioned off. While some of her photographs were already published in 2008, they found little attention at the time.

We all know what happened after that. In very little time, Maier's work became immensely popular, and it was the topic of two documentary movies, several book publications and dozens of exhibitions in North America and Europe. But the whole time there was one unanswered question: who was the legal owner of the copyright to her work?

According to a recent report in the New York Times, that very question is currently being discussed again, and it could very well lead to an end in the distribution of Maier's work. After acquiring parts of her legacy, John Maloof set out to find a possible heir and found a first cousin once removed in France, to whom he allegedly paid an undisclosed sum for the rights to her work.

Recently, however, photographer turned lawyer David C. Deal carried out his own investigation and claims to have come up with another heir who is also a first cousin once removed. Together with Deal, this newly-found heir now seeks to be recognized under American law, which could have grave repercussions on the distribution of Maier's work.

According to the New York Times report, the state public administrator’s office for Cook County, Chicago -- which is responsible for the case -- has begun to inform the current owners of Maier's work that they could face lawsuits should they continue publishing it. In the words of David C. Deal, Maloof and the other current owners of Maier's legacy are "breaking federal law" by publishing her work.

So until the debate over Maier's legal heir is solved, all publishing activities regarding Maier's work may have to be put on hold, which means that her photographs could vanish from the public eye -- again. As for how long it might take until her rightful heir has been recognized, a counsel for the public administrator’s office in Chicago claims that cases like this can take several years.

As much as we approve of attempting to find a legal heir to Maier's legacy, it would be extremely sad if her work couldn't be published or exhibited for an indefinite amount of time. Because after all, Maier has become known as one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century, and her legacy has a cultural importance that goes well beyond the question of who the legal copyright owner is.

(via The New York Times)
Image Credit: 
Thomas Leuthard - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic