How did a New York nanny become one of the great photographers of the 20th century?

Finding Vivian Maier does not find Vivian Maier conclusively, but it still keeps you drilled to your seat

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

Finding Vivian Maier

12A, Nationwide

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about the American nanny who led a wholly secretive life as a photographer and who, posthumously, has been described as ‘one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century’. It’s a good story, which is well told here, and told breezily (83 minutes), which we like. But I’m not convinced the quote from Michael Moore on the poster — ‘Amazing…this should be seen with other people, in the dark, on a big screen’ — is necessarily true. Ms Maier has already been the subject of Alan Yentob’s Imagine strand on the BBC, and this film could just as happily be viewed on TV as in the cinema, I think. You must beware movie posters, particularly if it turns out that one of the producers (in this instance, Charlie Siskel) was also one of the producers for Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. This is how it works. And while we are on the subject, if Elle or Marie Claire or Cosmo ever say: ‘The funniest rom-com of the year!’, it’s worth knowing this is abjectly wrong in 100 per cent of instances.

But back to the matter in hand, and Vivian Maier, whose story, for our purposes, begins in 2007 when John Maloof, an historian (who also directed this film, and is the main talking head), purchased a box of 4,000 unmarked negatives at a Chicago auction house for $380. He was working on a book about his neighbourhood, and hoped the box would contain archival photography he could use but, in the end, he just shoved it all in a closet. Two years later, acting out of curiosity, he thought he might develop a few, and what he saw blew his mind, as it will do yours. Pictures of down-and-outs, drunks, poor children, labourers and the occasional rich dowager in furs, but mostly it was people living at the margins, and the quality. The quality! So raw and true and powerful. These are the sort of pictures that, once seen, can never be unseen. They will inevitably call Diane Arbus to mind, which is never a bad thing.

FVM_African-American Man on Horse NYC_©Vivian Maier_Maloof Collection_online
Photo: Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection

His curiosity was piqued further, as it would be. Why were these photographs never developed? Why were these photographs never shown to anyone? Why were they taken so compulsively? (He ultimately tracked down around 100,000 negatives.) This is as much a detective story as anything, which starts with Maloof’s first discovery: that Vivian (born 1926) had just died, that she’d been a hoarder, and that she’d left a storage unit packed to the rafters with everything: shoes, hats, receipts, trinkets, hair clips, hundreds of canisters of undeveloped film. He tracks down the wealthy Chicago families who had employed her over the years, who all recall she never went anywhere without her box camera, a Rolleiflex, hanging round her neck. (Most vitally, this camera had a downward viewer so she could take photos surreptitiously, without ever having to raise it to her face.) Some of her charges remember her as fun, as she would take them to places their parents never would, like the slums or stockyards. But later, eccentricity seemed to tip into mental illness. One recalls having her head slammed against a bookcase because, at five, she still could not tie her shoelaces. She was odd, and quite scary, to say the least. She often used fake names and may have employed a fake French accent. She insisted that her room, in whatever house, had a padlock, and collected newspapers until the floor dangerously sagged. She had no friends, lovers, children of her own. She was tall (nearly six foot), her self-portraits show, with a strong, certain face. She also made audiotapes of her own voice which, when played, will send chills down your spine just as, interestingly, in the circumstances, the true voice of P.L. Travers sent a chill down my spine at the end of Saving Mr Banks.

Vivian Maier Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait Photo: Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection

Finding Vivian Maier does not find Vivian Maier conclusively. Not at all. A little is known about her mother, but her father? Nothing. We are no closer to understanding her compulsion at the end of this than we were at the beginning, which is almost gratifying, given that she was so keenly secretive. Indeed, there has even been some controversy that, in making this film, Maloof has violated the privacy she held so dear, although that’s just silly because 1) she’s dead and 2) she took her photographs without any regard for anyone else’s privacy, and 3) I refer you back to 1), and the fact that she is dead, which seems the main thing. More worryingly, John Maloof now owns the copyright to her work, and on occasion this did feel like something of a sales pitch.

That said, and although Ms Maier (or Ms Mayer, or Ms Meyer, or even Ms Smith, depending on what name she was using at the time) remains an enigma, there is still plenty in this film to keep you planted in your seat. ‘Just may not be cinematic is all’, as it should have said on the poster, but there you are. You can’t have everything.

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