If ever a story were written about a photographer, Vivian Maier‘s would seem almost too contrived. From her physical description to her personal life and her family background, right the way through her artistic life and her eventual demise it is as bizarre as one could imagine. But the fact that all this was to be nothing more than a wind’s whisper until the serendipity of her negatives discovery at a thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side by John Maloof in 2007 seems utterly Kafkaesque. In the charmingly engaging film Finding Vivian Maier co-directed by her chronicler John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, we have a story that is as profound as it is entertaining.
With Aaron Wickenden’s astute editing and an abundance of characters relaying recollections of their first hand experiences with the enigmatic photographer, the viewer is brought on a journey that moves from Chicago to New York, across to the French Alps and back again to Chicago. We are eased into the main plot with a delightful soundtrack provided by the Oscar nominated J. Ralph, that goes on to take a much shadier twist, all the while being framed by Maier’s innate genius as a truly remarkable photographer the world was in danger of never knowing at all. Her playful antics with the many children she minded are noted but it is a gradual uncovering of a deceptive individual who describes herself at one point in time as “sort of a spy”, and on many occasions she resorts to pseudonyms like V. Mayer, V. Smith, B. Maier for no discernible reasons. By virtue of the protagonist’s unusual disposition the film also becomes a story about the darker side of Maier’s obviously troubled psychology.
It is difficult to write about Maier without giving away any of the plot turns and surprises, as to do so would spoil the viewer’s pleasure in this much-anticipated film. Indeed, it is just as difficult to write about Maier as a person in any serious way with the limited information available. Maloof does a pretty decent job though. The tall, peaked-nose and goose-stepping nanny who bounced from family to family with twin lens Rollieflex camera permanently swung around her neck and a caravan of sealed boxes has all the attributes we usually associate with the romantic view of a 20th century snapper. Her stern yet skittish mannerisms, her floppy hat and men’s shirts, her obsessive-compulsive photographing and hoarding all amount to what is consistently referred to throughout as “eccentric”. Apart from the vast amount of boxes, Maier would collect thousands newspapers and stack them high. She would then lock her door and forbid entry to those in whose houses she was domiciled. In some cases that eccentricity spills over into brutality, and her privacy descends into paranoia. Her eye for the unusual transforms into an unhealthy attention to violence. Her dubious French accent, though she was born in New York to equally secretive parents, is only the tip of what is a sizable and threatening iceberg. Vivian Maier was no simple artist who only made work for her self and so risked total oblivion. She was as complex as she was intriguing, she was as dark as she was humourous, and she was as socially awkward as she was adept. To its credit the film contains within it a critique on the art world establishment for its initial rejection of Maier’s work. Apart from the 100, 000 negatives, Maloof also finds MoMA’s hypocrisy, and a general tone of cynical hegemony. On more than one occasion he points out how popular Maier has become in spite of this lack of support, and it is easy to sympathize. The art world establishment does not like interlopers, never mind those discovered at thrift auctions by outsiders.
Photographing a builder’s mud covered backside as he bends to work, with her dark shadow projected onto said buttocks is an absurdist composition that shows both her humour and her determined quick-wittedness. The solitude of her street characters both old and young, black and white, clothed in despair and disarray clash with introverted self-portraits and innocent children. She used colour film too, recorded her own thoughts on audiotape, and filmed strangers, quizzing them on their political opinions. This is not the work of a hobbiest, but the work of a genuinely interested artist. Furthermore, as Maloof continues his enthusiastic stewardship, he discovers that the world so far has been wrong in its conclusions about the obsessive nanny: she did attempt to print her pictures, and not only that but she attempted to hire a particular French printer to work on her behalf, thus dispelling the notion that she only created for herself. After all if one is to print, it is often for others to appreciate.
Despite her inherent talent for creating such tragic yet beautiful images, Maier seems to have stalled when it came to promoting them. It is not unusual at all for hoarders to hoard as a means to psychologically hold onto something they have lost in the past; this is a physical manifestation of some past trauma which has not been resolved. And we are made aware of this in the film, though it remains a disconcerting mystery to the end. In much the same way this could also help explain her choice in being a nanny, who photographs people on the busy streets, yet shuns male attention and only tolerates others without exploring deeper relationships. Ultimately, it was two brothers who she once minded that found her a place to live and paid her rent until she died impoverished and alone in 2009. In many ways this would appear to be a rather fitting end to such an incongruent character, but the most unusual thing about Vivian Maier is that it really did take her death to give her work life. Finding Vivian Maier is not a film about her work per se, but a portrait of the photographer, and one that leaves the viewer eager to find out more however impossible that might be.
Finding Vivian Maier goes on general release in Ireland and the UK from July 18th.
Irish screenings will be held at the Irish Film Institute July 18th – 24th.