Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel. Starring John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark, Tim Roth, Phil Donahue.
The story of Vivian Maier – a lifelong nanny who posthumously became recognized as one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century after boxes containing her negatives were bought at an auction – is a fascinating one, filled with mystery and drama and discovery. It’s part Searching for Sugar Man, but part frustratingly unresolved.
The new documentary Finding Vivian Maier, directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof (who “discovered” Maier’s work after purchasing a box of negatives at an auction), is filled with her photography and videos, and includes insightful interviews with those who knew her, including the now-grown children who she helped raise.
It’s a great story, well told, and has been shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar. Still, something doesn’t quite feel right here; I’ll get to that later. The film tells two stories: of Maier’s discovery and the promotion of Maier’s work by co-director Maloof, and of her personal history, which is dug into more than the subject would have liked (Maier died in 2009, just months before her photos began to make a splash).
Maloof, who was working on a book about Chicago, initially purchased a box containing undisclosed negatives at an auction for $400; unable to use them in his work, he put them aside. Two years later, he began scanning the images and posting them to his blog, where the response was almost instant: Vivian Maier had been “discovered”.
Maier was born in New York, but spent some years of youth in France, where she adopted what is described in the film as a fake French accent. She took a Rolliflex camera with her whenever she went. The unique nature of the camera allowed her to look down through the viewfinder while it was hanging around her neck; through this method, she was able to capture some incredible fly-on-wall images of life on the street.
She never attempted to pursue a career in photography, however; the only notion that she wanted to use her work in any way was from a letter to a developer, which was never sent. Instead, she made her modest living as a nanny. Maloof interviews a number of the people who knew her; what they have to say – including one woman’s heartbreaking allegations of abuse – isn’t always easy to hear.
It’s all pretty fascinating. You’ve probably heard Maier’s story and seen her photography, but the movie contains a number of insights that makes it well worth seeing.
Here’s the iffy part of Finding Vivian Maier: It’s told from the perspective of Maloof, who is credited as co-director and appears on camera in numerous scenes, travelling around the world trying to find out more about Ms. Maier and decrying MoMa for not assisting him in developing her photographs. He’s really pushing to get her more recognition in the art world. Great.
Maloof, of course, owns the rights to most of Maier’s photographs. That elderly cousin in France he tracked down? Maloof paid him for the rights to Maier’s work (we don’t see that on camera). That means that this isn’t exactly objective filmmaking: the director of this film stands to profit greatly from the success of his subject. That is, as long as his claim to the rights holds up in court, something that has already been challenged.
That makes Finding Vivian Maier a commercial enterprise for its co-director. Of course, any filmmaker stands to profit from the success of their film and any ancillary products that it might promote. But the aggressive on-camera hard-sell from Maloof here really put me off. Maier’s photography speaks for itself; I didn’t need him to sell it to me.
Finding Vivian Maier is an intriguing documentary, but one that should have, perhaps, been told from a different perspective.
It’s also strikingly reminiscent of two recent documentaries I cannot recommend highly enough, Searching for Sugar Man (which achieved great success) and Resurrect Dead (which didn’t, but was just as fascinating). There’s something about these stories of artists who toiled in obscurity only to be “discovered” years later that’s just magical.