Imagine being the kind of person who finds everything provocative. All you have to do is set out on a walk through city streets, a Rolleiflex hanging from a strap around your neck, and your heart starts pounding in anticipation. In a world that never fails to startle, it is up to you to find the perfect angle of vision and make use of the available light to illuminate thrilling juxtapositions. You have the power to create extraordinary images out of ordinary scenes, such as two women crossing the street, minks hanging listlessly down the backs of their matching black jackets; or a white man dropping a coin in a black man’s cup while a white dog on a leash looks away, as if in embarrassment; or a stout old woman braced in protest, gripping the hands of a policeman; or three women waiting at a bus stop, lips set in grim response to the affront represented by your camera, their expressions saying “go away” despite the sign behind them announcing, “Welcome to Chicago.”
Welcome to this crowded stage of a city, where everyone is an actor—the poor, the rich, the policemen and street vendors, the nuns and nannies. Even a leaf, a balloon, a puddle, the corpse of a cat or horse can play a starring role. And you are there, too, as involved in the action of this vibrant theater as anyone else, caught in passing at just the right time, your self-portraits turned to vaporous mirages in store windows, outlined in the silhouettes of shadows and reflected in mirrors that you find in unexpected places. You have to be quick if you’re going to get the image you want. You are quick—so quick that you can snap the picture before the doorman has a chance to come outside and tell you to move on.
There is so much drama worth capturing on film; you don’t have the time or resources to turn all of your many thousands of negatives into prints. Anyway, prints aren’t the point of these adventures. It’s enough to delight in your own ingenuity over and over again, with each click of the shutter. You’ll leave the distribution of your art to someone else.
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On a winter’s day in 2007, a young realtor named John Maloof paid $400 for a box full of negatives that was being sold by an auction house in Chicago. The box had been repossessed from a storage locker gone into arrears, and Maloof was hoping it contained images he could use to illustrate a book he was co-writing about the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park. As it turned out, he had stumbled upon a much more valuable treasure: the work of a photographer who looks destined to take her place as one of the pre-eminent street photographers of the twentieth century.
Like all good stories, this one is full of false leads and startling surprises. Maloof was unimpressed initially by the negatives and disappointed that he hadn’t found any materials for his book on Portage Park. As he told a reporter from the Guardian, “Nothing was pertinent for the book so I thought: ‘Well, this sucks, but we can probably sell them on eBay or whatever.’” He created a blog and posted scans of the negatives, but after the blog received no visitors for months, he posted the scans on Flickr. People began to take notice, and their responses helped Maloof appreciate the importance of his purchase.
His growing excitement led him to take a crash course in photography, buy a Rolleiflex—the same kind of camera that had been used to capture the images on the negatives—and even build a darkroom in his attic. He tracked down other buyers who had been at the auction and persuaded them to sell him their boxes, ultimately accumulating a collection of more than 100,000 negatives and 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies and audiotapes, as well as personal items like clothes, letters and books on photography. A second Chicago collector, Jeffrey Goldstein, held on to materials he acquired from one of the initial bidders. But Maloof estimates that he succeeded in gathering 90 percent of the photographer’s archive.