Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mystery Well Worth Investigating

Finding Vivian Maier (2013) - Maloof, Siskel
 photo Vivian115-thumb_zps6f5a6f0c.jpg
I became aware of Vivian Maier's beautiful photographs through my photographer friend about a year ago when he showed me a photo book he just purchased called Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.

Those Rolleiflex medium format shot black and white photographs of people immediately grabbed my attention. He told me a very improbable yet amusing story about how Maier's work was discovered. In 2007, a young man named John Maloof, while doing research on his Chicago neighborhood, happened to come across a box full of 35mm still photo negatives at an auction house. He then discovered that the box contained amazing works of art. They belonged to a reclusive woman who worked as a nanny and housekeeper all her life. Ever since then, Maloof has been doing everything in his power to get her work out into the world.

Curiosity really got to Maloof. Clearly not satisfied with getting out the book and the website dedicated to Maier's work, with a video camera, he, along with co-director Charlie Siskel (nephew of the late critic Gene Siskel), sets out to find just who this woman really was, interviewing an impressive amount of people who, one way or another, knew her. There is so much she left behind -- not only of thousands of undeveloped b&w and color film rolls, but also stacks of newspaper clippings she collected, receipts, letters, clothes -- that had been in storage, and would most likely have been thrown away if Maloof didn't intervene.

So who was she? Finding Vivian Maier works like a good detective story: a lanky woman with a French accent, who took thousands and thousands of photographs in her spare time, who appeared in many of her photographs herself, but never showed her pictures to anyone. Did she want her talent to be discovered or didn't she? The film traces her life as a nanny/caretaker in Chicago and the New York area by interviewing many of the families she worked for. It seems that Maier had a dark side as well, as some of the children (now adults), whom she took care of, testify about her condescension toward 'normal' people and their lives.

Maloof even travels to Maier's ancestral homeland in French Alps, a small town where her mother is from. There he finds a film lab where Maier corresponded with its technicians. Maier knew the importance of developing and editing her work. She wanted her work to be shown at some point.

Although this documentary doesn't go deep into her late years, it was some of the children, whom she took care of as a nanny, who came to her rescue to get her an apartment, and took care of her until the end of her life.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary about a person's life. And I give Maloof a huge credit for his dedication. Many interviewees snigger at his unbelievably good luck of stumbling upon Maier's work. One of the interviewees bluntly tells him in the beginning of the movie, "I just wish I discovered them (photographs) first, not you." The filmmaker demonstrates that the film's not about him, but all about his subject, by exiting the frame and letting the story unfold by itself early on. 

It is quite commendable to devote many years of your life cataloging and sorting through not only someone's life's work but also one's life story. It is Maloof's unwavering devotion to let Maier's work be known (with a great curatorial eye) to the world and the sincerity in his investigation into finding who she really was that I find extremely noble and moving.

Finding Vivian Maier opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 28, and in other cities in April. Please visit IFC website for more information.

To see more of Maier's photos and information, please visit

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