Exposing the tremendous work of a nanny-photographer undiscovered in her lifetime, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier uncovers a very private life lived in public places.
Portrait Of A Lady by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Purchasing a box of black and white negatives at a Chicago auction house, John Maloof has embarked on a mission to bring Vivian Maier’s photographs into the limelight of recognition by both the public and the art establishment. Vivian Maier spent her life in service, working as a maid, nanny, governess and carer, but with a passion for life and the texture of the city, she would scour the newspaper for inspiration for her sorties into the big smoke with her young charges in tow, through the slums, abattoirs and streets with her Rolleiflex round her neck and at the ready. A street photographer with an incredible eye for capturing a portrait, a moment, joy or tragedy, Vivian Maier was also a private loner, a quiet observer and a packrat who hoarded secrets just as much as she hoarded newspapers and undeveloped camera films. Who would perhaps have been horrified at the skirts being lifted on her life’s oeuvre. Or perhaps, posthumously, she would have taken secret pleasure in the recognition of her work and in the interest in her life less ordinary.
Trying to find the words to describe Vivian Maier, it’s not so much talking heads as thinking heads that open John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s documentary Finding Vivian Maier. They are the faces of the lives Vivian Maier touched, the girls and boys she nannied, the mothers and fathers who employed her, the shopkeepers who kept hold of trinkets for her, the neighbours, the relatives in St-Julien-En-Champsaur, France. The words they find are variations on the same theme – mysterious, secretive, eccentric. And then we cut to John Maloof recounting his story to camera of how he found a box of black and white negatives by the then unknown amateur photographer Vivian Maier in an auction in Chicago. Maloof began the laborious (and presumably expensive) task of tracking down and purchasing the rest of the negatives from the sale, developing the unexposed film cartridges, archiving, scanning, uploading and sifting through the remnants of Vivian Maier’s life, tracking down her previous employers, as well as the village in France she visited with her French mother, and piecing together the nanny photographer’s bittersweet story.
Constructed out of talking heads and archive stills and footage (including the home movies and audio tapes found in Vivian Maier’s belongings) John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier is almost shockingly conventional. At times, due to the fact Vivian Maier remained unshown and unknown during her lifetime, it’s a fascinating portrait of an Everywoman – an unknown woman whose story is only able to be told by the people she came into contact with. And yet, the portrait is blurred – the truth behind her childhood years, her trauma, her personality and secrets remain largely unrevealed. The vested interest however behind the making of the documentary is shockingly apparent, as John Maloof, the man who owns the collection of Vivian Maier’s works make a documentary to bring her art to a wider public and increase the recognition (and value) of her photographs, like a get-rich producer from cinema’s Golden Age, betting on turning that Hollywood dame into a star. Almost despite itself, there’s a fascinating dialectic between the dynamic, go-getting and ruthlessly curious Maloof and the reclusive Vivian Maier – solitary, secretive, bruised and fiercely protective of her belongings – her hoarded newspapers, her photographs and memories.
Controlling and manipulative at times, Finding Vivian Maier often feels posed – like the Latin American home help sitting with a copy of Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men on her knee, vengeful – as Maloof reads aloud from the ether from MOMA refusing financial assistance, or contrived (defending himself from a barrage of criticisms at rummaging around in a dead woman’s drawers by the importance of her work. And in truth, it would be a criminal shame for Vivian Maier’s tender, comic and tragic photographs to go to their grave with her, but Maloof’s guilt at stripping the nanny bare is palpable – “If I could give her money, I would” he proffers at one point. Like a photograph taken on the street, Maloof steals not just a moment but a lifetime – and the tension between this Y-generation art collector on the make, whose first thought is to upload the photographs online and share them with the digital community and this eccentric, anachronistic nanny, who wore big flappy coats and felt hats from a bygone era and padlocked her private quarters tightly shut, but kept a sustained interest in and solidarity with the poor, politics and people she met on the city’s streets.
Perhaps the real tragedy isn’t so much that her life’s work risked remaining undiscovered in her lifetime, so much that she lived out her final years friendless and alone, suffering from an untold trauma that kept her suspicious of men and reluctant to engage in relationships that might last more than the length of an employment. Like the developing self-portrait that ends Finding Vivian Maier, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s film relies a little too much on clichés of the documentary genre. But it’s a reclamation rather than a retrospective, and as we delve deep into the murky and grainy resolution of a life, we can glimpse a portrait of the purity of art for art’s sake emerge from the amniotic silver of the business of art.
Finding Vivian Maier is released on 18th July 2014 in the UK