Vivian Maier might best be described as the Emily Dickinson of American photography. Like the wildly prolific 19th-century American poet, Maier (1926-2009) led a reclusive existence and her work was barely seen in public during her lifetime. Her vast output was unsuspected until, in 2007, some of her pictures came up for sale. John Maloof, a real-estate agent with an interest in photography, bought a box of negatives at a Chicago auction house. He was trawling for historic images of the city that he could use in a book he was researching. The auction house gave him Maier’s name but he couldn’t find out anything about her.
When Maloof began scanning and developing the images, he realised that Maier was an extraordinarily gifted and prolific photographer. His quest to discover more about her, and to try to boost her reputation in the process, is the subject of the documentary.
Finding Vivian Maier is a tantalising and utterly fascinating film but one which can’t ever quite explain the mystery of Maier. In spite of all the biographical details about her that it turns up, the photographer remains an inscrutable figure. It is baffling as to why she did not make a greater effort to get her work (which extends to more than 150,000 negatives) seen after going to such painstaking lengths to conserve it. The most startling aspect of Maier’s life is that, even as she was taking photographs, she was working as a nanny, housekeeper and caretaker with various well-to-do families. The children she looked after have very mixed memories of her. They portray her as an aloof figure who could be harsh and even abusive to her charges.
Maloof’s obsessiveness matches that of his subject. The director goes to extraordinary lengths to piece together Maier’s story. At the same time, there are omissions here. He doesn’t make it clear that Maier was still alive when he bought that first box of negatives. Maloof also glosses over the circumstances in which he acquired the rest of her work. There were two other boxes that were also auctioned and he gives little detail as to why the other buyers were so willing to sell on to him. (Did they not see her genius, too?) “I found all the other people who bought boxes and I bought their boxes,” he blithely tells us. Maloof doesn’t mention, either, that the reason her work was on sale was because she could no longer afford to pay its storage costs.
Last year, the BBC made its own version of Maier’s story, Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?. Maier has also been the subject of many articles and books. After a lifetime of anonymity, she is now being prised out firmly into the light. Her work, including images that weren’t even developed during her lifetime, sells for thousands of dollars. It is understandable that many see a commercial opportunity in her and that there is fierce rivalry over her legacy. Maloof is a key player in the fast-growing Maier industry and can hardly be called a disinterested observer.
Maier described herself as a “mystery woman” and as “sort of a spy”. She was a real-life figure almost as strange as Scarlett Johansson’s alien come to earth in Jonathan Glazer’s recent Under the Skin. The chat-show host Phil Donahue, for whose family she worked briefly, remembers (a little perplexed), that she took a photograph inside a garbage can. Her former charges tell stories of how she used to march them off as kids into the poorer parts of town and leave them kicking their heels on street corners as she took pictures. There is a very morbid yarn about one child under her care knocked over by a car. Her first reaction wasn’t to tend to him but to snap his picture as he lay on the ground.
The photographer’s attitude toward her employers is hard to surmise. An an artist with socialist leanings, it is implied that she regarded them with hostility. A job as a nanny was a pragmatic way of putting a roof over her head. However, her affection for the children is also evident.
The work itself is astonishing. Maier’s street photography showed humour, tenderness and a sense of the grotesque. She had a genius for composition and a knack of relaxing and engaging her subjects, whether they were vagrants in the Bowery, kids, old men or courting couples. She was also often working on the sly, using a Rolleiflex camera that allowed her to look downward at the view finder, and thereby avoid eye contact and conceal what she was doing. The street pictures are very different from her evocative photographs of her employers’ children at the beach or in the park.
One question which Maloof can’t resolve is whether Maier would have appreciated his snooping or considered it a flagrant breach of her privacy. She carried her life around with her in boxes and suitcases. She would become furious if anybody tampered with the very possessions that the film-makers are poring over.
“What’s the point of taking it if nobody sees it?” one interviewee laments, unable to accept that Maier may simply have been taking her pictures for her own benefit. As in the BBC documentary, Maier’s French roots are examined, as is her globetrotting. (She embarked on her own version of a world tour in the late 1950s.) So is the grim finale to her life, when she was impoverished, ignored and more eccentric than ever.
Finding Vivian Maier doesn’t deliver what its title promises. As a personality, Maier remains stubbornly elusive and mysterious. Maloof can’t answer why she lived in such secretive fashion or even explain what drove her toward photography. Many of the reminiscences about her flatly contradict one another.
The mystery, though, only adds to her allure. As Maier becomes acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s major photographers, Maloof deserves at least some of the credit for exposing her work. His film can only prompt yet more interest in the woman often flippantly referred to as “Mary Poppins with a camera”.