The fascinating story of Vivian Maier – a Chicago nanny and prolific street photographer who has received recognition for her photography posthumously – was already familiar to me before I watched this documentary by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. I became aware of Maier’s work when Maloof first alerted the biggest street photography-related group on Flickr about the boxes of negatives he had picked up in an auction, a thread that is briefly glimpsed at the start of Finding Vivian Maier and which can be read in full here. Maloof’s question for this online community at the time was ‘What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?’ and this documentary is the story of what he actually did with that stuff, as well as offering some information about the life of Vivian Maier herself.
Though born in New York, Maier spent more than 40 years working as a nanny, primarily in Chicago’s North Shore. Many of those she worked with or looked after appear in this film, arguably furthering a sense of mystery through their conflicting stories and recollections: some report acts of cruelty while others considered her as ‘one of the family’; some thought she was born in France, others thought she came from Austria. And no-one can agree on her name — she used Viv, Vivian, Vivien, Meyer, Maier, Mayer, Maiers and many other combinations, which arguably suggests that this is a person who did not wish to be discovered.
Photography was a hobby and Maier was dedicated, talented and prolific, shooting regularly in her spare time and primarily using a waist-high Rolliflex. She walked the streets of Chicago and took pictures of people and sights on the street, often venturing into the poorer neighbourhoods and training her camera (though not exclusively) on the homeless, children and people of colour. She was also a hoarder, and two years before her death Maloof managed to buy some of her photographs, which he intended to use in a personal history project. As he examined them he realised that the quality was high and he subsequently sought out more. Maier died in 2009 and the collector picked up her personal effects at another auction; it is estimated that he now owns around 90% of Maier’s output (anything between 100,000 to 150,000 negatives and a whole load of undeveloped film to boot). We glimpse the scale of it here as Maloof fixes a camera to the ceiling and painstakingly lays out anything and everything, including letters, ticket stubs, badges and un-cashed tax refunds.
One of my gripes with Finding Vivian Maier is that it concentrates for long periods on Maier the nanny, and far more than it does on Maier the photographer. Her story is a fascinating one, but it has already been told, even though this is the first time Maloof himself has been able to tell it; there were a few TV news clips around when the artist’s work first went viral, and in the ensuing years books have been published and there have been exhibitions in several cities around the world. Jill Nicholls also made the excellent – and in my opinion superior – documentary Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? for the BBC in 2013, although because Maloof was making his own film at the time he declined to take part, and missing such a key figure in the story sadly means that the Nicholls documentary feels incomplete.
Not that Finding Vivian Maier feels in any way like a definitive statement about the woman, despite its Academy Award nomination earlier this year. This is really the story of Maloof’s search for more information about her and his desire for the work to be recognised by major international galleries, as opposed to a straightforward appreciation of Maier as an artist, though there is brief industry insight from photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark. Interviewees here make the point that Maier didn’t want to be in the public eye, the implication being that Maloof’s use of her work is somehow wrong, though he repeatedly asserts his belief that the work is too good to sit in boxes gathering dust and almost exhibits a missionary-like zeal at times. However it must be remembered that he is the person best placed to make money from the canonisation of Maier, through limited edition print sales and other means; his highlighting of rejection letters from the likes of MoMA in New York here seems a little bitter, for example, and at times this documentary feels like a get-in-touch plea to influential gallerists (even if that wasn’t the intent). There are also ongoing questions about the legality of profiting from this work; Maloof bought the negatives fair and square, but copyright laws in the US are complicated, and a legal challenge has been filed in the US by a lawyer against the owners of the negatives, who believes they should not be used for commercial gain. (Somewhat suspiciously there’s no mention in this film of the two other Chicago-based collectors, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow, who also found and bought some of Maier’s negatives around the same time.)
The legal challenge arose in the wake of the 2014 release of Finding Vivian Maier, but there is a nagging sense that other pertinent commercial issues were left out of the documentary, which means that anyone paying close attention to the story could leave this film with raised levels of suspicion. Maloof’s impressive detective work is certainly impressive: in one sequence he explains how he compared a tiny French village that appears in Maier’s photographs with thousands of jpegs on Google Images and subsequently managed to track down a French first cousin once removed. With camera crew (possibly just co-director Siskel) in tow he visits the relative and an exhibition of Maier’s prints is held in the remote Alpine town where Maier apparently spent some of her childhood. However (as per Wikipedia) it seems as though the relative in question signed over any rights he may have had to Maier’s photographs. One wonders why this was left out of the film; perhaps it occurred at a different time, but it would certainly add some context to a scene in which Maloof asks to handle Maier’s mother’s camera and his French hosts are somewhat reticent, and seem to view him with suspicion.
It’s possible (and understandable) that Maloof and Siskel didn’t want this film to be about any current business dealings, and instead set out to highlight the artist’s talent and to concentrate on the amazing journey of discovery that started in earnest after she died. However the business surrounding Maier’s work does seem to me to be an integral part of that story, and as such this documentary feels incomplete by failing to acknowledge certain aspects of it. In a sense Maloof is perhaps both the best and worst person to be making a documentary film about Vivian Maier at this time: on the one hand we have 84 minutes filled with images from the photographic archive that he owns, augmented by clips from her own home movies and strange audio recordings of Chicagoans, but his own personal stake in Maier, Inc. is always at the back of your mind. Commendably certain awkward questions are not dodged and are left in the final edit, which you could argue suggests an intended transparency, but I am left wondering how Maier’s story would look with Maloof’s cooperation but in the hands of someone with a little distance from the business end of things.
By the end Maier still remains something of an enigma. One of her charges, now grown-up of course, is understandably upset when she reveals that she was force-fed by the nanny, and others hint at sustained periods of cruelty. Yet Joel Meyerowitz, a man who knows more about street photography than most, highlights Maier’s connection and apparent empathy with her photographic subjects (particularly the downtrodden and children) as one of the reasons the pictures are so good, and unfortunately states that her chosen profession makes perfect sense. The question we are supposed to ask is ‘which one is the “real” Vivian Maier?’ And the answer, presumably, is ‘both of them’.
Directed by: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel.
Written by: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel.
Starring: Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz.
Cinematography: John Maloof.
Editing: Aaron Wickenden.
Music: J. Ralph.
Running Time: 84 minutes.