Directed By: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Starring: Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Daniel Arnaud
Trivia: Comedian Jeff Garlin is the Executive Producer of this film
So who was Vivian Maier? Well, we have the basics: born Feb. 1926 in New York, died April of 2009 in Illinois, and know she worked as a nanny, employed by numerous families over the course of several decades, mostly in Chicago and its outlying area. Those who knew Vivian also recall she usually had a camera hanging around her neck, and that she seemed to enjoy taking pictures. As it turns out, Vivian Maier took a ton of pictures, over 100,000 in all, as well as hundreds of 8mm and 16mm films. What’s more, she was pretty darn good at it; experts who’ve reviewed her work now consider her one of the finest street photographers of all time, a gifted artist with an exceptional eye. What nobody can figure out, though, is why she hid it away from the world (she never even bothered to have many of her photos developed). Did Vivian Maier know how talented she was? Did she care? These are just some of the questions that co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel try to answer in their excellent 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier, a film that attempts to piece together the life of a woman who, by all accounts, preferred to remain an enigma.
It all began at an auction house, where John Maloof, looking for pictures for an upcoming nature project, paid $380 for a box full of negatives, apparently taken by a mysterious woman named Vivian Maier (an initial Google search of her name turned up nothing). Eventually, he scanned a few into his computer and posted the pictures online, where people went absolutely gaga over them. So, he tracked down more negatives, some of which offered clues into Maier's background (a few had phone numbers on them), and Maloof's diligence soon paid off. He found people who’d known Vivian Maier, including the parents that hired her and the children she watched over (all of whom are adults now). One couple in particular was holding onto a storage facility filled with boxes of stuff Vivian had acquired over the years (she was, as they put it, a “pack rat”, seldom throwing anything away). In the meantime, Maloof was showing Vivian’s photos to a number of experts (who agreed she was an amazing talent) and organizing exhibits at art galleries in New York, London, and other cities, many of which proved to be a smashing success. The news media soon got hold of the story, and before long Vivian Maier and her photos were causing a stir. As for those who knew her during her lifetime, all they could do was scratch their heads and wonder why she never told them what she was up to.
Finding Vivian Maier is, at times, incredibly engrossing, especially when relating the story of John Maloof’s quest to find out who Vivian Maier was (at one point, his search leads him to former talk show host Phil Donahue, who had hired Vivian for a short time in the ‘70s). What I found interesting was that not a single person who knew Vivian could provide many details about her life, mostly because she revealed very little of herself to them. She was, it seems, a private person (one former employer tells of how Vivian demanded a lock on her door, while another remembers her telling them never to go into her room unannounced). Sometimes, Vivian’s behavior was downright bizarre: a shop owner who was holding goods for her in the ‘80s recalls that she didn’t want to give her name (she signed the receipt “V. Smith”), and when one of the kids in her charge was hit by a car, Vivian saw it as a photo opportunity, snapping pictures of the poor boy lying in the street as he waited for the ambulance to arrive.
Yet this strange woman was also a phenomenal artist, capturing images of everyday life that are among the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. This is where Finding Vivian Maier truly excels: treating us to hundreds of Vivian’s pictures, snapshots of people going about their business, with no idea that they're being photographed. The experts interviewed over the course of the film praise her composition and framing, comparing Vivian to such well-known photographers as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. As intriguing as Maier’s story is, it pales in comparison to those moments when we’re shown the fruit of her labors. Normal pictures may be worth 1,000 words, but some of Vivian Maier’s are easily worth a million of them.