By Diana Matthews
When filmmaker John Maloof purchased a box of negatives at an auction for just over $300, he was unaware of the rabbit hole he was slowly but surely falling into. He began examining the images contained in the tiny translucent boxes. Not knowing anything about the context of the photos, he posted them on a blog, seeking the wisdom of the Internet for any information about their origin. Black and white pictures of people – old, young, sad, happy, emotional, stoic. It wasn’t long before the site garnered international attention.
Not only had he discovered arresting art. He had uncovered the story of a secretive woman with a hidden passion whose work was only coming to life years after her death. The photos were taken by Vivian Maier and while I would like to say that the documentary Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of a wildly successful and outgoing artist known for her compelling street photography, the truth is very much the opposite.
Vivian was a nanny, not a professional journalist or acclaimed photographer. And the hundreds of thousands of photos she took throughout her life were never seen by a single person.
There’s often a cliche of artists wishing, hoping and desperately working to be appreciated in their lifetime. But Finding Vivian Maier seeks to piece together the life of an individual who made the decision to hoard and fiercely guard not only her work, but her personal identity.
The film features interviews with the mothers and fathers who hired Vivian to work in their houses, the children (who are adults now) as they recall their memories of being babysat by “Ms. Maier” and acquaintances who had known her for decades, but never even knew where she was born or any personal details about her life.
Throughout the film, Maloof seeks to understand why Vivian took as many pictures as she did and more importantly, why she never showed her work to anyone.
The interviewees reflect on obscured memories from their childhood and conversations that happened decades ago. There’s a strange energy to their commentary because none of them had ever known her as a photographer with a body of work comprised of thousands of images. A palpable and heartbreaking thread of sadness runs throughout the film as the people being interviewed express remorse, as if they were robbed of truly knowing her.
Vivian is remembered as always having a camera around her neck, taking pictures of anything and everything around her. But no one ever saw the results, and perhaps even more regretfully, no one ever asked to see what she was capturing.
Everyone has a different version of Vivian, which is often true of people who are intensely private and a little eccentric. The documentary feels so speculative, as if it’s trying to put together a puzzle where the pieces don’t exactly fit. As Maloof gets further into her story, even travelling to a small village in France where she had once visited distant relatives, a portrait of a woman struggling with mental illness begins to take form.
Despite the fact that she was employed to work in people’s houses, Vivian lived on the fringes of society. She was a packrat who would travel with at least a dozen suitcases to each house she worked in. Many of her employers remember her hauling around stacks upon stacks of newspaper clippings from the most violent and grotesque stories of the day.
She was known for having a propensity for the darkest facets of life and one of the children she used to nanny for alleges Vivian once tried to force feed her and even physically abused her for not having her shoelaces tied correctly.
Finding Vivian Maier is interesting because it’s not necessarily feminist but neither is it unfeminist. It’s slightly judgmental of a woman who was judgmental herself. At first I was turned off, even to the point of boredom by the lack of emotion in the telling of her story.
But then I realized, it would’ve been inappropriate to make an emotional and empathetic film about her. It’s simple, straight to the point. Interviews with the people who met her accentuated by her photography and short films. It’s almost sterile in it’s matter-of-fact delivery as people recount their memories of her.
There’s a value judgement that runs throughout as Maloof seeks to solidify Vivian’s status as an artist. His investigation into Vivian’s story is tireless as he seeks to rewrite the history of 20th century photography to include her name as one of the greats. He outlines how difficult it is to get Vivian’s photography into big institutions because museums still won’t acknowledge her contribution to the form.
In many ways, Finding Vivian Maier doesn’t seek to solve a mystery that will never fully be resolved. It champions the life and work of a brilliant artist who could not do the same for herself.
Her work is now in smaller galleries around the world, people aren’t waiting for museums to give them permission to love her photos, they’re embracing her regardless. While Vivian didn’t have measures of status or success that people typically aspire to, she never had to compromise. She simply did the work. And for that reason, she’s the anti-hero for anyone who has created for the sake of creating.
Finding Vivian Maier is streaming now on Netflix.