The owner of the Mpls Photo Center is licking his wounds and trying to move forward after settling a federal lawsuit Tuesday for copyright infringement involving the work of Vivian Maier, a Chicago nanny whose street photography was discovered posthumously and led to worldwide exhibitions and a documentary film.
Maier died in 2009 at age 83 without leaving a will or any known heirs, so the city of Chicago was left to sort out her estate. Lawyers for the city sued the Mpls Photo Center in 2017, alleging that it had conducted unauthorized exhibitions and sales of Maier's works several years earlier.
Jeffrey Harrington, who the bought the Mpls Photo Center from Orin and Abby Rutchick in November 2015, said the lawsuit was unfair. He believes the Rutchicks had "indemnified" him against any lawsuits when they sold him the business.
"I never dreamt that it could impact me, personally," Harrington said. "I think we were just an easy target."
The estate filed lawsuits in at least seven federal jurisdictions in five states. James E. Griffith, with the Chicago law firm of Marshall, Gerstein & Borun, said in an e-mail Tuesday at that the estate is pleased to have reached a settlement with the Mpls Photo Center, "but has no further comment on the matter or its resolution."
Maier, a self-taught photographer, was a recluse remembered by only a few friends and the families for whom she had long worked as a nanny. The children she once cared for saved her from homelessness by paying for her lodging and looked after her as she aged. Maier's work — including more than 100,000 negatives and 2,700 rolls of film — was discovered in rented storage lockers and auctioned off.
"It really galvanized the photography world because you had this great photographer who just literally came out of nowhere, and then it eventually just wrapped into like the biggest fiasco and bummer that you could imagine," Harrington said.
John Maloof, a history buff looking for vintage photos to illustrate a book about his Chicago neighborhood, paid $380 for a box of Maier's negatives, fell in love with her work, and bought nearly everything she'd left behind. He began printing and promoting her work to wide acclaim, which led to a documentary titled, "Finding Vivian Maier."
Jeffrey Goldstein collected about 10 percent of her work, which ended up at the Minneapolis gallery. The only estate litigation that remains pending in the United State is against Goldstein and Vivian Maier Prints Inc. in the Northern District of Illinois. It alleges that the defendants misappropriated the rights to Maier's work.
Harrington called the Rutchicks "visionaries" who believed that they had bought the rights to the photos from Goldstein. He said they sponsored a show called "Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows," which he said "really put the gallery on the map." They also published a book and sold prints.
Orin Rutchick now runs the Berkeley Photo Center in California. In e-mail, he said the sale to Harrington "took into account all responsibility." He said he last heard from the estate lawyers last year, and they agreed that the terms of the purchase agreement with Harrington "indemnified us."
"Everything we did was legal when we sold the Center, and now after," Rutchick wrote. "It's unfortunate that Harrington owned the Center when this occurred, but we had no idea that this was brewing when we sold the business," he said.
Former Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe reviewed Maier's show in Minneapolis, writing that she captured "human dramas, big and little, in the flush of life. …They are intimate pictures seemingly taken from within arm's reach of their subjects, as most probably were." Abbe wrote that Maier kept her work private and a close friend recalled her saying, "I'm sort of a spy."
Harrington said the lawsuit took him by surprise because he never made a dime from Maier's work. He characterized the lawsuit against the Mpls Photo Center as "harassment," but said he chose to settle the case for a confidential amount of money because the Chicago law firm has the resources to "just keep coming."