Understanding Vivian Maier

By Michael Masterson

How often do you wish a film wouldn’t end, that it would continue to unspool and reveal more and more about itself? “Finding Vivian Maier”, part documentary, part detective story, part exposé, is that kind of film. Its subject is slowly revealed as one of the world’s great “street” photographers, rivaling Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee in her vision and unique perspective. At the same time we see a portrait of an obsessive hoarder with a cruel streak towards children and an almost clinical disregard of her subjects, even taking pictures of a child hit by a car while in her care.

The very private Maier actually never saw most of her own work, printing very little of it and leaving 150,000 images in the form of negatives and even hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film. By chance, an amateur historian named John Maloof purchased a trove of 30,000 of her negatives being auctioned off by a storage facility after Maier had stopped paying rental fees in 2007. A Google search turned up nothing about her until her death notice in 2009. Maloof began acquiring other remnants from her estate (she saved every receipt and scrap of paper as well as thousands of newspapers) and slowly assembled the missing pieces of a life unknown to the world at large. As he delved into it he realized that he had stumbled upon an extraordinary archive and began the search to find out who Vivian Maier was although it soon becomes apparent she didn’t want anyone to know.

The documentary traces the clues he uses to track down the families, including Phil Donahue’s, she’d worked for as a nanny in the affluent North Shore area of Chicago. In interviews with the children she’d cared for and some of their parents, Maloof works at unraveling the mysteries of Maier’s life and sometimes raises more questions than answers about her darker side. She often took her employers’ children into gritty urban areas on the weekends, snapping voyeuristic photos of people on the sly or sometimes quite brazenly without their apparent consent. Usually using a low-angle Rolleiflex, her results are startling, moving and sometimes disturbing, so much that Mary Ellen Mark compares her to Diane Arbus.

Nearly six feet tall and prone to wearing boxy coats and hats, in self-portraits Maier resembles an eccentric Isabella Rossellini. Intensely solitary, she apparently didn’t share her images with others. She also shared little about her life with people she knew and few of them even bothered to ask about her past. Most thought she was French because of the unusual accent she often cultivated. While her mother was from France and Maier had visited there in her younger years, she was born and raised mostly in New York. Maloof eventually tracks down her mother’s family in an Alpine village and aged relations there recalled a gangly American girl who always had a camera around her neck even then. At first Maloof had difficulty in attracting interest in Maier’s work. But after posting a selection of her photos that generated rapturous accolades on Flickr, he acquired more of her imagery and organized exhibits at galleries and museums worldwide. And made a documentary about it.

While exposing Maier’s abundant talent and singular life, Charlie Siskel (Gene’s son) and Maloof’s film also raises challenging questions about ownership and personal privacy. One of her former charges states emphatically that Maier would never have approved of what Maloof and others have done to promote her work. She went to great lengths to protect her privacy by sometimes using fake names and deliberately misleading people about her past, even suggesting she’d been a spy. Knowing she kept her prodigious body of work hidden from others, it’s slightly uncomfortable seeing it unveiled against her wishes. At the same time, it’s such brilliant imagery that the world would be a poorer place if it had vanished into a dumpster. The filmmakers mostly skirt the issue although Maloof wonders at one point if he’s pushed too much into Maier’s life. Regardless, he still leaves us wanting to know more about Maier and her remarkable photographs. Maloof pulls back the curtains she’d drawn so tightly around her life and you’re grateful that you get to peek in.

for more information: http://www.vivianmaier.com/film-finding-vivian-maier/

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