Finding Vivian Maier
2014, NR, 83 min. Directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 2, 2014
In 2007 at a Chicago auction house, John Maloof purchased a storage locker crammed full of photo prints and negatives. Struck by their quality, Maloof hunted down as much of the photographer’s work as he could find – at one point, he counted in his collection some 100,000 negatives, and nearly another 3,000 roles of film still undeveloped. He was also intrigued by the mystery of the photographer, and so Maloof began piecing together the backstory of Vivian Maier.
Born in 1926, Maier made a living as a nanny and housekeeper, but her true passion, it seems, was street photography, taken mostly with a Rolleiflex camera, which allows the photographer to maintain eye contact with the subject and shoot from below, a perspective that informs the mood of the photographs. Her curious and unsentimental images of mid-century America are deeply striking – most especially her pictures of children, her frequent companions. It’s not a little bit chilling to note that, after one of her young charges was struck (nonfatally) by a car, Maier pulled out her camera to document the scene.
We know this because Maloof is not just a character in the story, but also its narrator; with his co-director Charlie Siskel, they rounded up Maier’s former employers and the children she tended to, neighbors, and acquaintances, and interviewed them for the camera. Of friends, she seemed to have had few. She was profoundly private, cagey (she often used aliases), and, possibly, mentally unstable. Even as her biographical details come sharper into focus, there are still big gaps, bleary grays overwhelming the black-and-white facts, and notable discrepancies in the accounts of some interviewees. As several interviewees suggest abusive behavior in her past, this viewer at least squirmed for the dead woman unable to answer the charges against her.
The filmmakers are right to engage with the moral implications of thrusting into the public eye a woman so secretive she padlocked her bedroom door. What troubles Maloof most – understandably, as the de facto executor of her estate – is what appears to be Maier’s utter lack of interest in achieving professional recognition of her work. Would she be agitated by this much-deserved posthumous acclaim? And what are the rights of an artist, once-deceased, in shaping her own legacy? There are no hard truths to be found in Finding Vivian Maier (really, how could there be?), but it’s an engrossing doc nevertheless – a portrait of an American artist hiding in plain sight, a mystery with too few clues, and a sincere inquiry into how best to divine the wishes of the dead.