Vivian Maier, born in New York in 1926, worked most of her life as a nanny and a housekeeper. Entrusted with raising children not her own, she revealed very little to those in whose lives she was nevertheless absorbed. She was there, but "she" was not there. While often Maier had a Rolleiflex camera around her neck, including when she took the family's children on outings into the heart of the city, those whom she worked for saw her simply as a caregiver and an eccentric who was also an obsessive pack rat.
When, in 2010, these families were approached by John Maloof and questioned about Maier, their surprise at learning they had an artist working for them was palpable. “Finding Vivian Maier” (2013) is the completed documentary that delves into the life of this guarded and creative woman.
The telling of her story began in 2007 when John Maloof went to an auction looking for vintage photos of certain neighborhoods and buildings in Chicago. He was working on a book about Chicago’s history and ended up successfully bidding on a box of film negatives. They weren’t helpful for this book but when Maloof began scanning the negatives, he recognized that he had stumbled upon a body of work of a photographer who had produced striking images.
These negatives included photography of the wealthy, the marginalized, and the day-to-day (and night-to-night) life of street people. The framing, intimacy, and shocking honesty of these images led Maloof to the realization that he had discovered a true artist. When Maloof first "googled" Vivian Maier's name around 2007, there was nothing about her. In 2009 he tried again to find out about her, and only found a recent obituary.
Meanwhile, though, as Maloof sought out and purchased the rest of Maier's belongings maintained in various storage units, he ended up with 2,000 rolls of black-and-white film, 700 rolls of color film, over 100,000 negatives, and various other items Maier collected such as coupons, flyers, bus passes, receipts, and clothing. A bit obsessive himself, Maloof sorted out and organized it all. From receipts, he learned she had been a nanny and housekeeper. A kernel of an idea formed: he should find out more about this unknown prolific photographer.
In 2010, mutual friend Jeff Garlin put Maloof together with Charlie Siskel, who had worked on documentaries for over a decade. Maloof and Siskel understood that with this wealth of material (that included not only photos and negatives but Super 8 footage and audio recordings), they could tell her story. In addition, both knew there was a compelling story about Maier's art, her sacrifices, and her uniqueness. Thus, the documentary about this fiercely private woman was born.
"Finding Vivian Maier" is a detective story. Who knows if the true essence of Maier's soul is revealed? But an argument can be made that she was showing what mattered to her most with her choices of what to shoot. And by choosing to be a secret photographer and artist, never seeking fame or wealth, another aspect of her character is revealed. One can only guess about why she held so tightly on to her privacy.
Her photos reveal a deep sense of empathy for tragedy, the poor, and people outside the mainstream. She loved light and beauty and nature. Maier also believed that she mattered. Her photos include images of herself, in reflections sometimes. She also recorded interviews she did of others and letters show she considered publishing at least one series of prints of landscape photos.
On the other hand, Maier hoarded hundreds if not thousands of copies of old newspapers with grim headlines about sadness and cruelty in life: murders, accidents, corruption. She wore baggy unbecoming clothing and didn't like to be touched. In one of her audio recordings she remarks, “Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on. You have to go to the end and then somebody else takes their place. And now I’m going to close and quickly run next door to do my work.”
Charlie Siskel (in a phone interview) - who co-wrote/co-directed and co-produced this film with Maloof - talks about his collaboration with John Maloof, the detective of this detective story, if you will. Maloof's own obsessive streak allowed him to go through the massive amounts of materials that Maier created, collected, and stored. Maloof spent countless hours organizing and archiving everything he could gather about Maier and began to learn of her extraordinary life by following up on the details of receipts and bus passes and uncashed tax refunds.
Amazing is the fact that had not Maloof been detail-oriented and awe-stricken at Maier's huge collection of photos and pretty much every other item she could hoard, this story of this woman who "presented herself one way to the world but ultimately was a true artist," as said by Siskel, would never have been told. The collaboration between Maloof, then, and Siskel, with his background in filmmaking, was the perfect fit for telling the story.
As the layers of Maier's life began to be unpeeled, her duality emerged. This person who for all intents and purposes was "just a nanny" began to be seen, as Siskel describes it, "in opposite," much as a film negative is the opposite of the printed image. Maier is now considered to be one of the most renowned and well-respected street photographers of the 20th century. Her photos are exhibited around the world and recently an endowed scholarship was set up in her name by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Maloof and Siskel worked together on the film for close to 3 years. There was a lot of shooting and editing, and of course during all this time more of Maier's photos, films, and audio recordings were being reviewed. Siskel points out that at times found footage worked perfectly with the narrative. For instance, one formerly "nannied" child tells the story of when Maier took photos of a boy on a bike who'd been struck by a car; Maloof and Siskel found the corresponding photographs and included them as the story was told.
Siskel notes that "her photos capture and humanize people on the margins." Maier lived on the margins, not only as a nanny but towards the end of her life when she suffered hard times. Siskel emphasizes that what is important is showing that Maier was a brilliant artist. "She posed as sort of a normal member of society, doing something noble - raising children. But, her true calling was an an artist," he remarks. Maier was extremely dedicated to her art, lived a double life, and sacrificed herself so that she could create.
The beauty of this film is that her artistry is revealed to the audience much as it was revealed at first to Maloof. Slowly. What is fascinating is knowing that she probably would not have liked all of the attention. Sad is the fact that her employers never knew of or saw her art while she was living. Maier only showed them a few photos she took of the children. It seems that they never asked about the results of her carrying around her camera everywhere she went. In the end, though, two boys whom she cared for made sure she had a place to live and that her things were stored for her.
"Finding Vivian Maier" screens at the Guild beginning today, Wednesday, April 30 through Sunday, May 4th at 4:45 pm and 8:15 pm daily. Tickets range from $5 to $8 and can be purchased at the box office at 3405 Central Avenue NE in Albuquerque. Check out the Guild's website or call the theater at (505) 255-1848 for additional information.
This is a unique story about a woman who was almost completely forgotten. Her ability to uniquely capture moments of dignity, sadness, tragedy, beauty, and more is to be treasured. And, interesting, while Maloof's original goal was to capture images that showed Chicago architectural history at a certain time, instead he stumbled upon an incredible collection created by a unique artist of people at a certain place and time now long gone.