The work of photographer Vivian Maier is on a fast-track to critical respect and widespread popularity as a social media sensation, but almost no one knew of it until seven years ago, and the few people who knew the artist herself were acquainted with the elusive and enigmatic woman only very minimally, very obliquely. “Finding Vivian Maier” (2013) opens with some of these people being asked to offer a one-word description of her; clearly the assignment does not come easily. After prolonged pauses of perplexed, searching consideration, each interviewee speaks: private, bold, mysterious, eccentric, paradoxical.
Maier was a wilfully private person who took more than 100,000 pictures, very few of which were seen by anyone in her lifetime. Biographical research has turned-up few details of her early life. She was born in New York in 1926; lived with her mother in her native village in the French Alps in the ‘30s; took up work in 1951 as a nanny and soon settled in Chicago. In her free time, or even with her wards in tow, she roamed the city with a Rolleiflex camera, taking shots of people, situations, scapes, and events. The archive of her work that has come to come to light— totally by chance—is now considered by many to be among the best street photography of the 20th century.
“Finding Vivian Maier” is a fascinating documentary that pulls us in with a charged current of discovery; even the fact that it leaves the viewer wanting more is to its advantage—it’s a tantalizing introduction to both the artist and her canon. Many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her impactful images were the children for whom she cared. Later, when Maier was virtually destitute, some of those children took care of her, paying first for an apartment and later a nursing home, where she died at 83, in 2009, on the verge of being discovered.
For whatever reasons a loner, at once emancipated and in service, she seemed unknowable even to her upper-middle-class employers in Chicago suburbs such as Highland Park. (Class distinctions may have played a role. Her former employers presume that so private a person would not have wanted anyone to see her photos; not one of them says that he or she ever asked Maier, with interest or encouragement, if they actually might.) Those interviewed state that she was firm but caring with their children; those children, now in late middle life, give reports of a sort of Mary Poppins with a French accent who took them on grand adventures, interspersed with one or two darker reminiscences that sharply contrast not only with the majority but with the film’s generally whimsical tone and music.
The mystery began to unfold through the efforts of John Maloof who, with Charlie Siskel, co-directs the documentary. In 2007, he bought—for $380—a box of negatives at a Chicago auction; he knew only that it included street shots, a few of which he hoped might prove useful for a book he was writing. The auction house gave him Vivian Maier’s name but he found not one entry for her in Google.
He later issued an appeal in Flickr; a few articles about his find appeared; and in 2011 the Chicago Cultural center mounted an exhibit, “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer”. Maloof, obsessed with the trove he had stumbled upon and the enigmatic artist behind it, scanned more of her work, bought more of her negatives, and went in search of anyone with whom she had crossed paths. He discovered Vivian Maier, but the Internet has made her a star.
A few of the assertions in the documentary are worrisome and a bit leering. A word of admonition, perhaps from an art historian, about our tendency to mythologize artists, particularly women artists, would have offered some helpfully balancing context. And Maloof and Siskel don’t look deeply enough into what is perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence of Maier’s life—the remarkable, diverse, and revealing work itself.
Nonetheless, “Finding Vivian Maier” is, from many perspectives, a must-see film; it’s an engaging way to begin a journey and a shrewd consideration of the rapidly changing ways and means of assigning artistic value. It remains to be seen whether professional opinion eventually confers upon Vivian Maier’s work an imprimatur that places her alongside Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. What has already occurred—and the excitement in watching this film—is that however those considerations pan out, we’ve already been admitted to the virtual museum to judge these eidetic images for ourselves.
by Hadley Hury