Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.
Portrait of the artist as a young woman? Part biography and part compelling mystery Finding Vivian Maier is another fascinating documentary exploring the creative processes of an artist. Although in this case, the artist is one who was not well known until a treasure trove of her work was discovered almost by accident. It makes for a fascinating story of fame and obsession.
An eccentric and lonely spinster, Vivian Maier was a self taught photographer who hadn’t formally studied art. Between the 1950s and 1970s Maier would wander around the streets of New York and Chicago with her box brownie camera slung around her neck, taking candid photographs of people she encountered. She created some striking images and often remarkably intimate portraits with her camera. But for some reason she never developed her the bulk of her film and it remained hidden away in boxes behind locked doors.
Maier remained virtually unknown until real estate agent John Maloof stumbled upon a box of undeveloped negatives which he had acquired for $400 at an auction in Chicago in 2007. Intrigued by what he found, Maloof set out to learn more about Maier. He tried to search for her on Google, but couldn’t find anything about her on the search engine.
Working with co-director Charlie Siskel (an Emmy nominated writer and producer who has worked on the documentary series The Awful Truth with Michael Moore and Tosh.0, etc) Maloof set out on a four year journey to discover more about the enigmatic and reclusive Maier, making the film something of a detective story, akin to the Oscar winning Searching For Sugarman.
The filmmakers discover that she used to be a nanny, and track down a number of her former employers and some of the people whom Maier used to babysit (including apparently tv talk show host Phil Donahue). They talk about their memories of her, although their recollections seem at odds with each other, and it becomes clear that they didn’t really know that much about her. It seems that Maier was an intensely private person who often used aliases, and there are hints of her darker nature that are not explored in great depth.
The filmmakers slowly tease out a portrait of Maier, but despite a number of interviews with people who knew her, she still remains something of an elusive enigma. Maier died in 2009 aged 83, dying as she had lived – alone. Maier was also a hoarder, and she had kept hundreds of newspapers in her cramped apartment. She had also shot lots of 8mm home movie footage, some of what we get to see here.
From the many photographs we see here, she had a natural eye for composition, and was able to capture her subjects in intimate close-up. But she obviously never tried to earn a living from her photographs. Eventually Maloof found some 100,000 negatives and some 3,000 rolls of undeveloped film in boxes. Maloof developed many of the negatives himself and they formed part of an exhibition of her work in 2011. This exhibition established Maier’s posthumous reputation as a great street photographer and one of the great artists of the 20th century. Given her retiring nature, Maier would probably be appalled at the level of recognition and praise heaped on her work as a consequence. And Maloof even admits to a sense of guilt at exposing her work to the world.
Maloof is on screen for much of the film so it is good that he has a genial presence. This is a sleekly assembled package, and the footage has been edited together beautifully by Aaron Wickenden (The Interrupters, The Trial Of Muhammad Ali, etc), bringing clarity to the wealth of material.
Nonetheless, by the end there are still many unanswered questions, and Vivian Maier still remains pretty much an enigma.