Finding Vivian Maier is an engrossing portrait of a posthumously discovered artist
PHOTO BY RAVINE PICTURES
FINDING VIVIAN MAIER
Where is it playing?: The Palm
What's it rated?: Not rated
What's it worth?: $9.00
What's it worth?: $9.00
Writers-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel tell the story of Vivian Maier, a nanny whose cache of 150,000 photo negatives was made famous after she died, proving her to be among the most accomplished of street photographers. Through interviews with people who thought they knew her, never-before-seen photos, and archival film footage, Maier’s mysterious life is revealed. (83 min.)
Editor’s note: Glen Starkey’s wife Anna joined him for Split Screen this week.
Glen Think of Vivian Maier as the Emily Dickinson of street photography. Like Dickinson, Maier was intensely private and prolific in her work, though during her lifetime people saw almost none of her images. After death, however, this fresh and surprising artist was discovered, in Maier’s case by John Maloof, lover of garage sales, swap meets, and auctions. While working on a history project, he bid sight unseen on a box of old negatives. Acquired for less than $400, the work wasn’t useful for his project, but he was amazed by the images he saw. He went about locating other bidders who acquired more of Maier’s possessions, bought what they had, and set about trying to discover who Vivian Maier was and give her work the exposure he believed it deserved. The film slowly reveals the life of a complicated and apparently frustrated, damaged, and possibly mentally ill woman whose condition worsened as she grew older.
Anna Maloof stumbled upon an amazing collection of images, but even beyond that he discovered the bits and pieces of this woman’s life that helped to shape her story in this film. Maier was a pack rat, holding onto scraps of paper, receipts, and piles upon piles of newspapers—anything that she found remotely useful or interesting. She was obviously very attached and protective of her things, which she moved from place to place while leading a rather nomadic lifestyle. In fact, the appeal of being a nanny seemed to come from the freedom it allowed her to walk the streets and photograph what she saw. As for her photography, it is amazing, evocative, and beautiful. But, boy, what a complicated and strange woman standing behind that camera.
Glen True! In addition to the negatives, Maloof found lots of 8mm films and cassette recordings with Maier’s voice. She has this incredible accent, which acquaintances describe as French, though it appears to be an affectation, as she was born and grew up in New York. She also seems to have a very dark impression of men, leading some to suspect the lifelong spinster was sexually abused at some point in her life. Some of her young charges recall a lovely woman who treated them well, while others recall a woman who would drag them to the worst parts of town to capture photographs, and others still claim Maier, herself, was physically and emotionally abusive towards them. Maloof even discovers that Maier’s only known American relative, an aunt, purposely excluded her from her will with a cryptic note, and that a small town in France had a cousin of Maier’s, and that she visited the village on several occasions. Whatever she was—good, bad, victim, aggressor—what comes through in the images she took is an incredibly talented artist with a singular eye for composition, a brave (maybe even aggressive and reckless) artist willing to risk much for an image, and a political animal who seemed to understand that image can make an argument.
Anna There is every indication that Maier didn’t reveal herself to anyone fully. She wasn’t just a guarded person, but secretive and eccentric. Different families she worked for knew her by different names, some called her “Viv” or “Vivian,” where others say anything but “Miss Maier” was totally unacceptable to her. Did she spell it Maier, or was it Maer? Meyer or Mayers? Strangely enough, the answer is all of the above. She valued her privacy dearly, and while she obviously loved documenting what was happening in the world around her, she didn’t appear to have any desire to be recognized for it. She wasn’t trying to be a famous artist; in fact, that seems to be the opposite of what she enjoyed, which was anonymity and privacy. The families she worked for speak of her lovingly, while still describing her as mean and frightening at times. She wasn’t just a woman with a great eye for a shot, but a complicated and mysterious loner who let her passion lead her life.
Glen Considering this is a first film for Maloof and his writing and directing partner Charlie Siskel, it’s surprisingly good, though far from perfect. They certainly had a lot of material from which to work, but one can’t help but think of Maloof’s actions as taking advantage. Would Maier have wanted this posthumous recognition? Perhaps, but would she also want her personal life laid bare for viewers? I’d guess not. And then there’s the potential monetary gain Maloof stands to make. If Maier’s work becomes accepted by the fine art community, her prints, which Maloof now solely owns the rights to, will skyrocket in price. On the one hand, I commend Maloof for the expense he’s investing in making Maier known, and on the other hand, there’s an element of exploitation here that’s undeniable. In the end, I can’t help but think this work deserves to be seen and Maier deserves a place among the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank. Δ
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Comment at email@example.com.