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Today, the name “Vivian Maier” is far from unknown. People around the world have seen and read about Maier’s photographs, taken in New York, Chicago, and countless other places during the second half of the 20th century. Her trademark shots are black-and-white street scenes — comic and grotesque portraits of passersby, wrenching pictures of poor children and criminals, self-portraits with her stoic face and boyish haircut reflected in a range of available surfaces. As for Maier herself, though, only the essentials are widely known: she worked as a nanny, and she died before anyone knew of her photographic work. Just who was Vivian Maier, the mysterious woman who inadvertently bequeathed the world her vision?
Finding Vivian Maier attempts to answer that question. The documentary film was produced and directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof, who first discovered Maier’s work in 2007, when he bought a box full of negatives at auction for $380. Maloof was looking for photographs to illustrate a book he was writing about his Chicago neighborhood; what he ended up with was a trove of Maier’s work, which led him down a rabbit hole that changed his life.
Following his realization that the negatives he’d bought were actually extremely good, Maloof amassed a Maier archive, of both her life and work. It includes: more than 100,000 photographic negatives, hundreds of rolls of undeveloped still film, videos, audio recordings, jewelry, shirts, hats, receipts, and even some uncashed income tax checks from the government. “She had stuff wedged and hidden in everything that she had,” Maloof says in the film. What his finds indicate, and what his interviews go on to confirm, is that Maier was a packrat and a hoarder. More than one former employer tells of the ceiling-high stacks of newspapers that Maier kept, which made the floors sag.
It follows, then, that she was also a loner, and somewhat strange. She came across as “unusual,” says TV talk show host Phil Donahue, who briefly employed her and recalls her taking a picture inside a garbage can. “She was a little past eccentric,” says another former employer, who explains that the first thing Maier requested when she moved into their home was a lock on the door to her room. “She just was a person that didn’t fit in well,” says a former charge who saw death for the first time when Maier took her to the stockyards. Maier managed to be warm and appealing enough that people hired her to care for their kids, but, watching dozens of people struggle to find the words to describe her, it becomes quite clear that no one knew her well at all. None of her employers were aware that she took photographs, and the kids knew only because she did so while dragging them on never-ending walks “in the worst parts of town,” in the words of one.
Maier’s relationship to children seems to have been complex. They provided her with a livelihood, and in many of the audio recordings, videos, and photos, one senses a real affection and love in her for kids. At other times, they seem to have been means to an end — an opportunity to “get the life she wanted,” according to one former charge. And the dark and seedy honesty that pulses through many of her photos apparently played out in real life, as some of Maier’s former charges tell horrifying stories of being hit and force fed, of unmentionable incidents in a basement.
It’s to Maloof’s credit that he unearths all of this, and much more. His obsessiveness is a perfect complement to Maier’s: what she collected and shrouded in mystery, he has discovered and determined to bring to light — to the point that he spent hours Google-Image searching the church tower in a certain Maier landscape so he could figure out what town in France her mother came from (Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur). He visits that town, as well as an archivist, to unearth Maier’s roots, and takes the camera with him on much of the journey.
The resulting documentary is standard artist-as-subject fare, using a combination of talking heads, shots of relevant places, and the occasional bland image of a computer screen to indicate internet usage (people on Flickr exclaiming “Wow!” when Maloof first posted images of Maier’s work). Its driving questions, beyond the basic “who was Vivian Maier?,” are: why didn’t Maier show anyone her photos, and why hasn’t the “art establishment” embraced her? These are varying degrees of valid, but the presentation and perpetual asking of them in both cases grows tedious. Perhaps Maier didn’t show anyone her work because she really had no one to show it to; she was, after all, paranoid and mistrustful and without close friends. As for the art establishment, Maloof’s frustration with it seems misplaced, considering the fact that his prints of Maier’s images are now being sold by Howard Greenberg Gallery (and his dismissal of the issue of making posthumous prints is a bit naive). He wants a show for her at the Museum of Modern Art now, but seems to forget that her work came into the public light fewer than five years ago.
Finding Vivian Maier isn’t particularly experimental or innovative in form, and suffers from a bit of structural scrambling when the narrative veers abruptly at one point. But it does a good and moving job of telling the story of Maier, which is the most important and interesting thing under discussion. Maier’s life was — if not tragic, then certainly sad. As she grew older, her eccentricities overtook her. She became increasingly paranoid and stopped being employable, which means she also stopped having a home. She was briefly homeless, until a few of her former charges who had thought of her as a second mother pooled their resources to help. They got her an apartment where she scraped by alone, dumpster diving, and spending her days sitting on a bench in a nearby park. She became — and the film emphasizes this to great effect — one of those characters her younger self would have photographed: a crazy old poor lady. “There’s a lot of eccentric people around here, and I just thought she was one of them,” says a former neighbor.
One day Maier fell. An ambulance came to take her away, and “that was it,” says the neighbor. The same men who paid for her apartment buried her in a strawberry patch where she used to take them to play.
Would things have been different if she had put herself out there, tried to sell her photographs, made a career out of the hobby she clearly loved? The words of one former employer, who also considered herself Maier’s friend, resonate: “Obviously the woman was so creative, and it must have been so galling to just … be a maid.” But even after all that Maloof has uncovered, it remains impossible to know. We’ll keep searching for Vivian Maier, but we will never completely find her.
Finding Vivian Maier is playing in select theaters throughout the country.