Finding Vivian Maier: Film Review from 2014

John Maloof was searching for photographs at an auction when he found a job lot on a collection of negatives by an unknown photographer. He then paid under four hundred dollars for what turned out to be part of possibly the most significant find in the history of street photography.

Seeing nothing online about the creator of this work, he eventually finds it to have been made by an obscure woman called Vivian Maier. Maloof then goes on to acquire not just the bulk of her photographic archive, but also many of her possessions. In addition to negatives are film canisters taken by Maier that hadn’t even been developed- images she would never have seen herself and a strange idea in a world of digital instant recall. The images so far uncovered are exceptional on every aesthetic level: the finer points of which only now are being revealed. Maier also made home movies and tape recordings. Extracts of which are included in the documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier’.

Through research, Maloof acquires a trove of material in a storage unit. Maier was an obsessive hoarder who kept the fragments of her life together in a collection of suitcases and cardboard boxes. These included individual cases containing her ‘uniform’- a hard wearing ‘no nonsense’ mixture of hats, boots, men’s shirts and dresses. We then see examples of this material carefully arranged for the camera. The life traces of a solitary talent who deliberately avoided success.

Vivian Maier spent her entire career as a nanny and died in poverty in Chicago in 2009. Many of the children she looked after are now middle aged and give differing accounts of their carer which makes her even more an enigma. Often these same children are the subjects of her pictures, beautifully captured.

Maier’s self portraits are as inventive as they are revealing. We often see her in shadow or reflected. Sometimes with implications. In her impassive facial stance, Maier’s self portraits recall the work of Lisette Model. Other subjects are drawn from the streets through which she roamed and are spontaneous yet precise observations of great depth. Elements of Brassaï.

Whatever we find out about Vivian Maier, so much of her life remains unclear. Clues that emerge take us round in circles. She was born in New York in 1926, but has a ‘French’ accent according to many who knew her. Then right after, we hear another interviewee claim this to be not authentic. Subsequent research leads us to wonderful family members deep in the French Alps. But there was at some point a deep rift that developed between her relatives closer to home. She was left (or chose to be) totally alone. An arrangement which seemed to suit Maier. Throughout the film, those interviewed recall how private she was. She demanded her own, locked-off space to live in, never revealed details about herself and never was married or seen to have a partner. Although she had friends and acquaintances, they were kept ‘at arms length’. Several times the assumption is made that something had happened to traumatise Vivian Maier.

Her skills as a recorder of people recall, among others, Diane Arbus or Cartier Bresson. She was able not just to observe and select exactly the right subject at the right moment; but was fearless in pointing her camera in just the right place. In this, Maier made maximum use of the Rollerflex camera, which was ideal for her kind of ‘up close and personal’ street photography. Looking at Maier’s pictures today, it is likely that she must have seen work by the great photographers of her day, given their sophistication. Although, as far as we know self taught and working in isolation, Maier is known to have travelled taking pictures all over the globe for a short period during the early part of her life. She also appears to have been well informed about the wider world in general and in subjects like politics. One of her employers recalls how possessive and angry she became after some hoarded, set aside newspapers were given to the handyman.

It appears that she knew how good she was as a photographer, but we never get to the root of why she didn’t try to get her work shown. Working as a nanny with a place to live thrown in, perhaps allowed her to focus on taking pictures and documenting her life amid order and routine. Although always seen out with a camera, it is clear that many who talk about Maier never even knew she took pictures.

The children she cared for recall her taking them out on route marches in search of subjects. Sometimes getting so involved in taking pictures that she neglected the safety of the kids. Which brings out a deeper, darker side to her character. She could at times be really intimidating, bordering on sadistic in her treatment of certain children. Was this to ‘scare’ them into behaving as she thought they should? Or, was it to create a photographic ‘opportunity’?

At least one commentator has criticised Maloof for elbowing his way into the story of this extraordinary photographer. Would a woman who’d spent her entire life in anonymity really want her work to be seen by the world now she’s gone? An unanswerable question on which everyone can have an opinion. This is Maloof’s film and there are others in possession of work by Maier that question his methods. In his defence, he has spent much time trying to get Maier’s work known, despite the lack of interest from the photographic ‘establishment’ (of course no doubt smelling the colour of money along the way). On this point, it would have been interesting to hear opinions from those who Maloof approached, but failed to take Maier’s work on board. What might their reservations be?

Later life saw Vivian Maier’s increasingly eccentric behaviour hasten her decline. Sad recollections include her eating from bins and of her sudden disappearance one day. Her unknown work left behind, waiting to be either discovered or dumped.

As the work of Vivian Maier becomes public property and a part of the history of American photography, I suppose more details about her life will emerge. This film has gone some way to making her known all over the world. But still so much of the mystery that was her life remains. If you are interested in photography or how people choose to live their lives, you will find this documentary fascinating.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014.

(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2014)