A central question haunts and enriches the new documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Why would Maier, a brilliant street photographer who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny, never show anyone her work?
Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel build their documentary around a discovery made by Maloof. In pursuit of photographs for another project, Maloof spent $400 at an auction. He wound up owning a box containing 30,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints. He later acquired more of her work.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Maloof couldn’t find out much about Maier, but when she died in 2009, he began to pursue his interest in her, based on his assessment that her work — much of it done in the 1950s and ’60s — was both significant and amazing.
Maloof learned that Maier worked as a nanny in the Chicago area, that many of the children she supervised did not particularly like her, that she had an international upbringing and that she was a compulsive hoarder.
When Maloof put some of Maier’s work on the Internet, interest began to mount.
At its best, Finding Vivian Maier raises interesting questions about what conditions must be met in order for photography to be regarded as art. Maloof argues against those who contend that “genuine” photographic art — the kind taken seriously by museums — must be printed by the photographer.
Obviously, the departed Maier no longer can print the hundreds of thousands of negatives she left behind. She seemed to have no interest in establishing herself as an artist during her lifetime.
Maloof’s obsession with Maier’s work rivals her penchant for secrecy, but I knew nothing about Maier’s photography prior to seeing this documentary, and was happy to learn about it.
Maybe we’re better off for being able to see these amazing photographs without having to know the woman who took them: Maier does not come off as the most amiable of companions.
Siskel and Maloof learn plenty about Maier, but in the end, it’s her beautifully composed and revealing slice-of-life photographs that prove memorable — that and the strange realization that Maier never will know that we’ve seen them.
Some of Maier’s work can be seen by clicking here.