First Look: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’

John Maloof doesn’t visit flea markets anymore. In 2007, a discovery he made at Chicago town hall changed his life forever. Along with a box of photographic negatives (whose value he had not yet come to realise) he left the auction house with a single name: Vivian Maier. Thus began Maloof’s lifetime commitment to the enigmatic woman responsible for one of the most inscrutable mysteries in modern art.
Directed by John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, 83 minutes.

Unbeknownst to him Maloof had just unearthed some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. Depicting life in Chicago in the fifties, as he had intended, these photographs were more than just historic relics of a bygone era; each shot was composed uniquely, perfectly, as Mary Ellen Mark (in a brief cameo) succinctly puts it: “with a sense of humour… and a sense of tragedy.” To the untrained eye, these photographs were remarkable; to the seasoned art collector these negatives were exceptional.

Regardless of this fact, MoMA initially rejected any involvement with the photographs, no doubt because Maier herself had no existing clout or credibility in the art world. Maloof, who that day accidentally made himself responsible for posthumously restoring Maier’s name, or rather, building her name, has since  spent years trying to unearth any evidence he can to bring more light to this delphic figure who never received the fame she was due in her lifetime. Finding Vivian Maier is the byproduct of this mission.

After gaining a worldwide following over the course of weeks, ‘Vivian Maier’ has slowly become a household name. Her restored work is now rightfully represented by The Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and amongst her fans are renowned street photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark (neither stranger to singing the praises of their peers, having recently made appearances in 2013 documentary Everybody Street.) Both speak willingly about Maier’s work, Meyerowitz credits her “genuine eye,” whilst Mark studies her photography more guardedly, noticing similarities between her work and that of Weegee’s, Robert Frank’s and Diane Arbus’ and astutely claiming “there’s a piece missing from the puzzle.”

Though her work is unparallel, one might daresay that part of Maier’s success is down to the intrigue of her story. A nanny, whose origins are unknown, with no formal training, no next of kin, no fame or success in her lifetime, a discredited, working class citizen; her anonymity was her biggest skill. Blending into the shadows she was able to capture moments on film that many could not.

The little information this film does gather from fragmented talking head interviews (most of the interviewees were children in Maier’s care) barely break more light on this peculiar woman. We are left with brief insights into her multiple identities, and her overt tendencies as a collector, or rather, hoarder, along with the suggestion that perhaps she was abused in her past, which lead to her hermetic disposition. Yet unveiling the complete character of this woman would be to do her an injustice- her resounding desire for anonymity points only to this.

It seems that nothing was left uncatalogued by Maier. Amongst her hoarded relics were a collection of audio recordings that she had made over the course of her lifetime, mostly in the company of the children she nannied. Throughout the film we are teased with excerpts from these recordings, which often add layers to the mystery rather than provide answers (her accent is tinged with a French slur, where did this mystery woman originate?) Yet at times we are given an insight into Maier’s desperate desire to preserve the past. In one instance, as we watch Super 8 footage of Maier playing in long-grass with the children, we here her inquisitively ask them “and tell me, how do you think that you can live forever?” Perhaps Maier was more aware of her artistic immortality than her posthumous fame has given her credit for. Indeed, were she completely unaware of her talent, she surely would not have taken steps to having her work printed and published, as we discover she rather unconventionally did.

Without disturbing her memory (too much), Maloof and Siskel have created a posthumous elegy to the work of this incomparable talent, and thankfully, Maier has retained some of the mystery that she so eagerly strived for. But with over 100,000 photographs still being processed and hundreds of rolls of negatives yet to be developed, perhaps there are more fragments of the puzzle still to be unearthed.

Finding Vivian Maier screened as part of the PANORAMA strand at Berlinale.


Tags from the story
Documentary, Everybody Street, Finding Vivian Maier, Joel Meyerowitz, John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark, Panorama, Street Photography
Isabel O'Toole
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