Who was she? Who was Vivian Maier? We know she was a prolific photographer and if she were alive today she would have followers on every social media platform. If it were up to John Maloof, the man responsible for bringing her name and talent to light, Maier’s photography deserves the same rank and notoriety as many of her contemporaries, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark whose photographic styles defined an era. The difference between Maier and those who made names for themselves in photography is that Maier’s work remained hidden – tucked away in boxes of undeveloped film and negatives that had never been printed.
There are different levels of appreciation for Maloof’s and fellow director, Charlie Siskel’s 2013 documentary film, ‘Finding Vivian Maier‘. First there’s the historic aspect. Maier lived and produced a substantial body of work over the course of her working career. Maier was born February 1, 1926 in New York City and died April 1, 2009 in Chicago, where she spent forty years working as a nanny.
Maloof’s story of finding a collection of negatives at an auction, bidding and purchasing the collection, and subsequently tracking Maier’s collections of artifacts including clothing, souvenirs, 8 mm films, diaries, letters and miscellaneous mementos, is now part of the Maier’s story partly because the find was analogous to hitting a photographic jackpot and partly because the find represented a puzzle as to what motivated this unassuming woman to chronicle her life as defined by her role as caretaker of others, social observer of the goings on around her as she lived out her days.
Maloof, a real estate agent and historian recognized the value of the images after initially putting aside the work after purchase. When Maloof began looking at the negatives he realized the value of the images as they showed great street photography appeal for that genre. Maloof posted the photographs on Flickr, an online photography community for feedback, and thus begins his obsession with Vivian Maier.
As the story unfolds, curiosity about Maier grows partly because she was such a private person and her constant image making while nannying was different than what you’d expect from someone who spent their life in that capacity. She seemed to use her position of working class nanny, to be ‘seen and not heard’ beyond what she was there to do – care for children, to cultivate her craft. Only once during the film does Maloof uncover Maier’s intent on having her work printed. Maier made repeated efforts to conceal her identity throughout her life rather than to publicize her work. Maier, collected everything from receipts to newspapers showing the horrific in news stories: rape, murder and human impropriety. The people who knew her, her now grown charges, revealed they saw Maier as an enigma and hoarder.
Maloof and Siskel let those who knew Maier tell her story alongside her photographs, which speak their own language. It’s a film worth seeing for anyone who likes photography. The mystery over what drove Maier to create her own legacy, albeit posthumously, is up to the viewer to conclude.