The Best Photo Vivian Maier Never Took

We'd all love to be mentioned in the same breath as our favorite photographer. Especially if that photographer is a highly celebrated master of their genre. But what happens when your image is mistaken for, and credited to them, instead of you? 

For most of us, that scenario is unlikely. I can tell you that the chances of my work being mistaken for Henri Cartier-Bresson or Steve McCurry is zero. Yet this is exactly what happened to Tacoma-based photographer Katt Janson Merilo. One of Katt's self-portraits was mistaken as the work of her photographic heroine — Vivian Maier. 

© Katt Janson Merilo

Maier is an intriguing figure. The mystery surrounding her life is almost as fascinating as her photographic work. Employed as a nanny, she was a prolific shooter, taking more than 150,000 images in her lifetime. Many people thought she was French, though it turns out she was born in New York City.

Maier was a skilled street photographer, documenting life on the streets in American cities such as Chicago and New York. She often dragged along the children in her care on her adventures. 

The framing and composition of Maier's images are exceptional. She also had an extraordinary skill of capturing the intimate moments of strangers she observed. Her work documents women and children of the era in a way that few other photographers have. 

Maier also left behind a series of imaginative self-portraits. Many of them show her looking down into one of her beloved Rolleiflex cameras. Yet despite her skill, Maier remains an enigma: she didn't show her photographs to anyone. In fact, some of her friends and acquaintances didn't even realize she owned a camera. 

© Katt Janson Merilo

In 2009, historian John Maloof discovered a trove of her negatives at an auction in Chicago. Tracking down the rest of the items from her storage locker, he also came into possession of hundreds of rolls of exposed but undeveloped film. It’s thought that Maier’s financial situation prevented her from having those images developed in the final years of her life.

The publication of the Vivian Maier archives has made her one of the world's most celebrated photographers in the last decade. Her work has been printed, featured in books, and displayed in exhibitions. Her story has been the subject of three documentaries. 

She's also been the subject of many articles on the web, including one in November 2018 published by Spanish website Cultura Inquita: "The unpublished color photographs of Vivian Maier"

This is where our stories intersect. Among the color photos that featured in this article, incredibly, was a self-portrait Katt Merilo took in the window of the Blue Moon Camera and Machine Store in Portland, Oregon in 2012 - three years after Maier's death.

Mistaken identity: this self-portrait taken by Katt Janson Merilo in the Blue Moon Camera store window in Portland, Oregon, has been confused for the work of Vivian Maier. 

© Katt Janson Merilo

Let me set the scene: this is not some obscure niche blog with a small readership. Cultura Inquieta is a leading force on the European cultural scene, born out of the festival of the same name that takes place in Madrid each summer. The festival features workshops and exhibitions on music, visual arts, and literature. Cultura Inquieta's online platforms are a juggernaut, racking up well over 4 million followers across Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. 

So how did they end up using one of Katt's photos in their article about the color work of Vivian Maier? That's a question no one knows the answer to, but let's take a look at how we think it may have happened. 

Rewind to 2010 — when film sales had slumped to all-time lows, film cameras were being sold for next to nothing, and you could still buy Fuji Reala for $4 a roll. Katt Merilo was living in Chicago when she first heard about the fascinating story of Vivian Maier. She met up with Lee Kelley, an alum from her small woman's college, who also happened to be Director of Visuals Arts and the Public Arts Program at the Chicago Cultural Center. "Over coffee, Lee told me about the story of Vivian Maeir and the upcoming exhibition. I was absolutely captivated," Katt recalls. 

By the summer of 2012, Katt had moved to Portland, Oregon, and started work at the famous Blue Moon Camera shop. She spent the first six months scanning all sizes of film negatives for customers, from sub-miniature Minox all the way up to large format. 

Katt then progressed to working front of house with Blue Moon's Konica color film developing machine, endearingly named "Konnie". "I could run Konnie at the front of the shop while also helping customers buy film, browse cameras, and put in processing and repair orders," Katt explains.

"One of the biggest perks of working at Blue Moon was our unofficial job of camera testing. I'd been thinking about Maier and her story ever since Lee first told me about it in Chicago. The moment a Rollei came into the shop, I was eager to play with it. I took it home for the weekend and ran a couple of rolls through it to check for any issues. One of the images I took was a self-portrait in the store window."

© Katt Janson Merilo

The owner of Blue Moon Camera, Jake Shivery, discovered that Katt was a talented writer. He encouraged her to write social media and blog posts for the store, which she still does from time to time. 

One of the first blogs Katt wrote "Vivian Maier, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photography" was published on 18 December 2012. Written at a time when photographers were moving to digital en masse, it's a thought-provoking article that examines the existential process of why we take photographs. Here is one powerful passage from the article which touches on the undeveloped rolls Maier left behind: 

"I couldn’t imagine why Maier would continue photographing without the promise of seeing the fruits of her labor. It made me sad to think about her dying without having seen her powerful images, but then I realized that maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe it was the act of photography, the moment of exposure, the connection between herself, her subject, and her camera that mattered to her. And maybe that was one of her many secrets. She set out every day, exposing on average twelve frames a day, for perhaps no reason other than she loved to do it. Maybe the labor itself was enough." 

The first image posted in the blog was the self-portrait Katt had taken in the window of Blue Moon Camera with the on-loan Rolleiflex. 

Working for Blue Moon full time until 2014, she then switched to part time until 2016 while she attained her masters in Special Education. "Blue Moon were accommodating of my schedule and would let me come work pretty much whenever I could, which I very much appreciated." Life then took Katt on a different path: she became a mother and built her life around family, moving north to Tacoma, Washington. 

© Katt Janson Merilo

The next development in this story comes in February 2019. Katt's former Blue Moon colleague Jim Hair tagged her in an Instagram post that featured her self-portrait in the store window — but it credited Vivian Maier as the photographer. 

When Katt questioned the author of the account about the issue, they apologized and issued a correction immediately. They also directed her to the November 2018 Cultura Inquieta article as the source of their information. 

"At first, I was amazed that a photo of mine would be good enough to be confused with the work of someone who had grown to be an inspiration for me. I wasn't too worried about it because I was sure it was a simple misunderstanding that would be cleared up by Cultura Inquieta after a few embarrassed apologies. It was just a funny and exciting story. I joked about cutting out my negative and selling it for big money as a Vivian Maier original." 

Katt sent Cultura Inquieta messages on Instagram to point out their mistake. Not receiving a reply, she then reached out via all their social media channels and even sent them an email translated into Spanish. Katt never received a response. Friends and contacts rallied around her to do the same. 

"I'm a member of the international photography group 'Film Shooters Collective'. I posted about what had happened in the group and several members started reaching out as well. Some are from Spain and were especially upset to see such a careless example of journalism. They continued to make contact for several weeks via different channels."

Despite Katt and her friends repeatedly reaching out to Cultura Inquieta to explain the error, the article remains unchanged. The self-portrait Katt took in the Blue Moon Camera store window in Portland, Oregon, is still credited to Vivian Maier to this day. Unfortunately, the novelty of her image being confused as Maier's has long since worn off. 

© Katt Janson Merilo

"It's become frustrating. I'm angry that they don't show the same thoroughness in their research as I do when I write a blog. I try not to think about the fact that an image of mine is getting lots of attention, but only because people think it was taken by a famous photographer."

Katt's image continues to be shared and miscredited as the work of Vivian Maier due to the Cultura Inquieta article. "I found the most recent miscredit when a stranger tagged me in a thread. But they were kind enough to link back to my original article on the Blue Moon Camera website. That means the world to me when artists look out for each other like that."

I asked Katt how she thought Cultura Inquieta could get it so wrong. My exposure to Maier's work has primarily been through watching the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier". To me, it's obvious that the woman in the image is not Maier, yet the author included it in the article as her work. "As my friend Cameron Kline (founder of the Film Shooter’s Collective) said to me 'every woman with a Rollei is Vivian,'" Katt replies. "They could've made the initial mistake by googling Vivian Maier. In an act of lazy journalism, they grabbed my photo from the Blue Moon blog post without reading that the image was "inspired by Maier", rather than "photographed by Maier." 

Katt with some of the negatives taken with the on-loan Rolleiflex.

© Katt Janson Merilo

Katt is not seeking attention or promotion for her own photography through this process. She doesn't have a photography website at present as she's been focusing on her family over the last few years. 

"I'm not a fan of all the attention. I just want the issue to be corrected and go away. If my work is going to get attention, I want it to be for its quality, not because people mistakenly think it was by someone else. I was nervous about how a wider audience would respond to me, my image, and my photography once it all got more attention, but people have been lovely."

So how should this be corrected? Katt would love to see a post on the Cultura Inquieta social media platforms correcting their mistake, clearly stating that the image they used is hers. "I'd also like to see a text-only editor's note on their blog post stating that the original included an image of mine that was miscredited, along with a link to my original blog they took it from."

I asked Katt how she'd feel if Cultura Inquieta removed her image from their article without explanation or apology. "On one hand it would be a relief to have the source of misinformation removed. On the other, without them making a statement about their mistake, there will always be some ambiguity about the real owner of the photo. 

"Also, not having at least some statement owning up to their mistake would be very frustrating. If I were to make a mistake as a writer and let it continue for as long as they have, I'd feel the need to issue a statement of apology to the artist. Right now they're guilty of lazy journalism. If they remove my image without acknowledging the error, that would make them cowardly, too." 

Images used with kind permission of Katt Janson Merilo. 

Log in or register to post comments

9 Comments

Matt Murray's picture

Thanks Zeb! Was such an honour to speak to Katt about this story, hope it gets corrected!

Jan Holler's picture

"the moment of exposure" - Isn't that it?
What a great story. I do understand her position and I appreciate it very much. But still, could there be any greater praise for a photographer? I would be secretly proud.

Matt Murray's picture

Yes, it's a great compliment, though I can understand why it would the novelty would wear off.

Jan Holler's picture

http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/#slide-16
I can see why they mixed up Katt's photography with Maier's, also the colors fit well with Maier's style.
http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits-color/#slide-7

Robert Nurse's picture

"... Maybe it was the act of photography, the moment of exposure, the connection between herself, her subject, and her camera that mattered to her. ...Maybe the labor itself was enough."

Powerful!

Matt Murray's picture

Yes, very! Katt's original article is fantastic :)

Richard Tack's picture

How could anyone believe that's Vivian Maier? The clothes don't match anything from 1952 (when she bought her first Rollie) to 1970, when she turned 46.

Matt Murray's picture

I agree, but mistakes happen. The important thing to do when you make a mistake is own up to it - hopefully Cultura Inquieta will correct it and issue an apology.