Finding Vivian Maier is a 2013 American documentary film about the photographer Vivian Maier, written, directed and produced by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maier’s photographic legacy was largely unknown during her lifetime as she scoured the streets of Chicago capturing moments of human existence with the seasoned eye of a professional photographer. The film documents how Maloof discovered her work and, after her death, uncovered her dual life as a nanny and a photographer in Chicago through interviews with people who knew her, or at least thought they did.
Watching John Maloof’s documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ amble on about the very private and almost unknown street photographer maverick nanny, Vivian Maier was both inspiring and nerve-wracking in many ways. Being a creative who has dedicated her life to ‘the craft’ both in her career and in private to the extent of shutting everything else out of what people call a ‘normal life’ for a woman, I felt I could easily step into Vivian’s shoes when it came to pouring dedication and passion to her photography. From the need to find moments where I can sit with my thoughts in private to the annoyance of being in ‘noisy, cluttered’ situations, Vivian Maier’s story had cut deep. Real deep.
Had it not been for Maloof , who owns most of Vivian’s photos anyway and the private collections of Jeff Goldstein and Ron Slattery, the world would never have had the opportunity to see and be touched by her unique eye for the human condition: street style.
In the film, directed and produced by Maloof and Charlie Sieskal, Maloof admits how he always had an eye for being able to pick out items of value that other people usually saw as junk and in 2007, at a Chicago public auction, Maloof bought a box of Vivian Maier’s negatives for about $400. He stated that he had purchased the negatives for a history book he was working on, but after deciding that they were of no use to the book, he stashed the box away. The auction house, located on Chicago’s Northwest Side, told him the work was by Maier, but he found nothing about her on Google or the Internet – until her tragic death and the subsequent discovery of thousands and thousands of undeveloped negatives in storage. The rest – they say – is a long-drawn out lawsuit over Maier’s estate which may soon reach a settlement. Something, we suspect has served as a penumbra for Maloof all these years, which is why he declined to be interviewed for this article when we approached him a year ago.
The irony of the very public legal entanglements of one of the world’s most private street photographers is an understatement. In an age of voyeuristic reality TV, social media and selfies where unknowns are catapulted into the celebrity zone and any sense of individual privacy dismantled, Maier’s photographs seem almost eerily, a harbinger of current trends, and yet, the woman who is famed for intruding into her subject’s personal space has done the impossible – by remaining quite the mystery figure – until now.
Vivian Maier was a lady who clearly shunted the public eye, despite being behind the creative lens. On the surface, she was a typical classic tomboy-spirited woman, who had a strong will and a rebellious heart, topped off with a generous dose of eccentricity but underneath that steely veneer was a complicated woman who led a love-hate relationship with the communities she lived in.
In Maloof’s documentary, Vivian’s former employers and wards recall how she preferred wearing men’s shirts most of the time because the cut was better or how she walked – no, marched – like a soldier, with her arms flung out straight and her stride, large and deliberate.
Her fiery, independent spirit was also evident in the way she disciplined her employer’s children. Oftentimes patient and nurturing but on occasion tipping over to the dark side with her fierce (and oftentimes scary) demeanour towards her ward.
She rarely asked anyone for help, be it personally or financially and she kept her cards close to her chest, while breaking all gender stereotypes of what a woman had to achieve at that time, which was settling down, having children and carrying on with domestic duties the Stepford wives way. Instead, she tread her path solo, without maintaining much close ties to her immediate family or relatives, preferring instead, to take care of other people’s children, which she took great pleasure in.
The children she nannied generally described her as “a socialist, a feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person who was constantly taking pictures which she didn’t show anyone.”
Suffice to say, that kind of fierce, self-induced social exile and resolve came with a heavy price tag, when she eventually passed on from this world, alone and unknown, her legacy hidden away in a storage shed until Maloof discovered it posthumously, 2 years after her death. Some might say that this was a typical tragic ending befitting an eccentric lady’s life but for Vivian Maier, who has given us an extensive photo collection surpassed by none other, we have to ask ourselves, at what cost?
The discovery of Vivian Maier’s works have set the world’s imagination on fire as we ask the questions, ‘Who was this woman?’, ‘What drove her to take all these pictures?’, ‘Why did she never share her works?’ and ‘Why did she stay on as a nanny?’. Unfortunately, we will never be able to fully answer all those questions because in essence, no one really knew her, except vicariously through her photographs, private memoirs, audio recordings and films.
In the BBC documentary, ‘The Vivian Maier Mystery’, Michael Williams, co-author of the book ‘Vivian Maier, Out of the Shadows’, remarks, “I think even if she was here, she couldn’t explain her photography to us because she didn’t like talking about her photography and most of the people who knew her, and there were very few people who did, she never talked about her photography. So everything that we’re going to learn about her is through her pictures because it showed us what she liked, what she was drawn to. We are really, just left with the images.”
From Chicago to London to Tokyo, Vivian’s remarkable life’s work has been scanned, cropped, printed, curated and analysed in the hopes of finding a clue; any clue, no matter how small, that will reveal to us why she stayed under the radar, despite her tragic circumstances.
To the world, however, Vivian will remain the ultimate urban legend. The perfect Hollywood story of a mythical street photographer that led a life that was part Mary Poppins, part King Lear, ending up as a symphonic crescendo of triumph and tragedy all rolled into one.
Vivian Maier was born February 1, 1926 in New York City and was the daughter of Maria Jaussaud, who was French and an Austrian Jewish father, Charles Maier. She moved between the U.S and France several times, which accounted for her French accented style of English speech. Her father left the family in 1930 for reasons still unknown today.
By 1935, Maria took 9-year-old Vivian with her to go live with her relations in the quiet French Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur. Five years later, in 1940, the mother and daughter reunited with the rest of the family back in New York where Vivian’s father was working as a steam engineer.
Regarding Vivian’s family and her early life, we do know that she was eventually separated from her family again and was living in France for a time before returning to New York again at age 25 and working in a sweatshop. By 1956, she moved to Chicago and began her life as a nanny for the next 40 years.
She remained single after that with many around her saying that she may have been sexually or very nearly sexually abused at some point in her life for she never took to being very comfortable around men her entire life after that. Instead, she took pleasure in befriending all the kids that she was charged with and exploring the world outside their affluent suburbs with them in tow. Thus began her utter fascination with street photography as she spent long days walking the streets of Chicago with the kids she was looking after and busy clicking away on a Rolleiflex camera.
That interest in the visual began early when she used to head down to the theatres to watch films – an art form she took great pleasure in and that could perhaps, have been the spark that inspired her to be a visual artist herself.
When she took her photos, she would be completely and utterly focused. I mean, it was just, you know, instant. Absolute concentration and then it would be done. – Inger Raymond, a child nannied by Vivian Maier
With a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera held inconspicuously at hip-height, Maier captured fleeting moments and turned them into something extraordinary. One scowling lady fixes another’s wrinkled veil; a child with grimy cheeks and tear-filled eyes defiantly crosses her arms in front of a window display of draped gloves; a nun waits in the shadows; a prostrate inebriate cups his forehead; a young man rides an absurdly large horse under the El. Doorways, parking spots, bus stops, industrial neighborhoods, suburban dead ends, empty restaurant tables, storefronts, newspaper stands—she photographed them all – every last nook and cranny of places most people without street cred would dare venture into but not Vivian. She didn’t need street cred because she was the street, along with everyone in it that she captured on her camera.
As a street photographer, she mastered the most important skill of all – anonymity. Something that requires its proponent to blend in effortlessly into their environment and capture that one instantaneous second, which Vivian obviously, was a master at. Joel Meyerowitz, a street photographer himself admires how Vivian was able to be present and absent in her pictures all at the same time.
Keeping her head down low (literally) when she was snapping pictures, she opened up a space that allowed her subjects to reveal to her their most vulnerable and/or unexpected moments. After all, the streets of any city are a place where strangers encounter each other and that the rule of thumb is ‘You can ask but don’t expect an answer.’
It was a perfect situation for Vivian as a creative and curious spirit. Behind her lens, with a need to be invisible while doing it, her camera was the ultimate disguise and weapon. It allowed her to be intimate with her subjects without the commitment that usually accompanies most regular relationships. So despite her self-imposed loneliness, Vivian probably used those moments to feel connected with the rest of the world. A paradox, really, because she probably wanted to be around people but clearly wasn’t cut out to do it.
Instead Vivian thrived on anonymity, which opened up an unlimited arena of visual possibilities for her, because it allowed her to break away from the shackles of her given identity and become someone else, just like the characters in the movies that she loved so much. Like most of us who are carried away with such fantasies of being someone else for a day, Vivian actually took this quite literally when she signed her name on photo order forms as someone else or put on different accents with different people that she crossed paths with.
Getting away from herself wasn’t just something she regularly did to explore the idea of anonymity – Vivian did at times have to literally catch herself in the mirror, because on the streets, you have no name and in order to remember this, you had to be the subject yourself. I truly believe Vivian was curious about herself, hence why all the many, many self-portraits in the collections and the tape recordings of musings and rolls and rolls of Super 8 films. I really believe that she wanted to keep those momentos of every moment of her life, as if she was clinging on to just enough of her identity to keep her going for another regular day of anonymity on the street. Whether this was true or if it was just plain vanity, we’ll of course, never know but it is interesting nonetheless – this paradox life of Maier’s.
On the one hand, you have a woman who is free-spirited and decides she can make a trip around the world on her own and yet, on the other side of the spectrum, she is severely attached to her possessions, finding great comfort in hoarding. A quirk that, thankfully for us, resulted in the massive collection of photos we have from her today.
Current professional opinion on this is, however, mixed. Steven Kasher, a New York photo curator planning a Maier exhibition this winter, says she has the skill “of an inborn melodist.” John Bennette, who curated a Maier exhibition at the Hearst Gallery in New York City, is more guarded. “She could be the new discovery,” he says, “but there’s no one iconic image at the moment.”
Howard Greenberg, who has had her work displayed at his New York gallery, says, “I’m taken by the idea of a woman who as a photographer was completely in self-imposed exile from the photography world. Yet she made thousands and thousands of photographs obsessively, and created a very interesting body of work.”
That interesting body of work is thanks to Maier’s ability to take on duality. It was almost like wearing a superhero veneer, where she traded identities seamlessly; one as a lean, mean, bold and brazen camera-toting photographer for the streets and another, as a nanny in various households, willing to undertake mundane domestic chores which was, sadly, another facet of the tragedy that dominated Maier’s life.
So then we ask again, what made Vivian Maier take so many pictures, what made her spend all her earnings on hundreds and hundreds of negatives and camera equipment and finally, what was the driving force behind her passion?
People remember her as stern, serious and eccentric, with few friends, and yet a tender, quirky humanity illuminates the work: old folks napping on a train; the wind ruffling a plump woman’s skirt; a child’s hand on a rain-streaked window.
It seems to me there was something disjointed with Vivian Maier and the world around her. Shooting these photos almost tethered her to people and places. – Jeffrey Goldstein, ex-owner of Vivian Maier’s second largest collection of negatives
Connecting to the world through her lenses was her modus operandi and it wasn’t bounded by her immediate geographical location of work. In 1959 and 1960, Maier took a trip around the world on her own, photographing Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing, India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy. She funded the trip with money obtained from the sale of a family farm in Saint Julien-en Champsaur. The pictures she snapped during those travels contained the same spontaneous street photographer sensibilities you saw in pictures she took back home, which eventually became her signature style.
As a nanny, Vivian was a positive and inspiring person who presented herself differently to different people but she was also unpredictable, spontaneous and quite the moody character, which frightened those who were not used to her ways.
Her extraordinary hoarding skills are also now legendary. At one of her employers homes where she was a live-in-nanny, it was believed that she had up to 200 boxes of materials consisting of photographs, negatives, newspapers and recorded audiotapes and 8mm films. Not surprisingly, these hoarded items were the doorways into the secret universe of Vivian Maier. Everything else about her, was kept under lock and key.
Vivian’s ability to capture moments, big and small is what makes her pictures so compelling. It hits an everyday raw nerve with everyone who views them. While Vivian shrouded herself in mystery, her photos did the complete opposite. This is why they would appeal to the general public and became commercialised as quickly as they did.
Such prints can now start selling at USD$2,000 while vintage prints made during her lifetime can go for up to USD$8,000 each. An irony given that Maier would never have, in her lifetime, think that her pictures could fetch such staggering sums had she gone public with the photos herself.
John Maloof, who now owns around 90% of the collection, consisting of more than 100,000 negatives, 3,000 vintage prints and hundreds of rolls of film, audio tape interviews and home movies, has also been claiming all credit for being Vivian Maier’s sole curator and founder of her works.
Such claims have not gone down well with other collectors, curators, photography experts and academics, especially by someone who has had very little educational background in photography. In fact, Maloof’s churlish painting of himself as the ‘sole saviour’ of Vivian Maier has made the community very uncomfortable. This self-glorified ‘Maloofication’ also has academic Pamela Bannos feeling quite frustrated.
“Unlike the BBC production, I don’t consider ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ a documentary film about Maier at all. It is a film about Maloof and his quest to ‘find’ this woman – he films himself talking about his experiences and even shows himself setting up his cameras while he lays out her possessions.
“The way he handled this very private woman’s belongings made me feel very uncomfortable. I think that he has successfully made Vivian Maier into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows this model. On one hand, this explains why he doesn’t acknowledge other people; on the other hand, the broad release of his film sets up a one-sided version that establishes Maier’s story for those who don’t know there is actually so much more to the posthumous phenomenon.”
The other character in this ensuing melodrama, Mr Slattery, who paid $250 at the auction for items that contained around 2,000 of Maier’s prints says that the whole situation has now become a “distraction” from Vivian Maier’s work.
“I helped in many ways that will not be acknowledged,” he told The Independent. “If John Maloof or other promoters want to be the heroes of the story, let it be as such. I have a very large collection of her work and am happy to own it. The real hero is the photographer Vivian Maier. She had the gift. She caught moments of time with her camera and in her darkroom. The general public has seen a very small percentage of her work. I’ve seen a lot more than most. Let me tell you, it’s amazing. There are better images to come.”
Established street photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, says, “I’m concerned. We’re always seeing the pictures that the people who bought these suitcases decided to edit and what kind of editors are they? Would they know how she wanted those pictures to look like? What would Vivian have edited out of this work? What would she have printed? How can any one of us know who Vivian Maier really was?”
END OF LIFE
Steven Kasher, a gallery owner in New York who does vintage prints of Vivian Maier’s photos says of her, “It’s a complete accident that the world has stumbled on her works. It could have very easily destroyed without anyone knowing about it. Vivian Maier, unlike any other photographer I can think of, made her work entirely for herself. She had no audience. She knew no other photographers. She didn’t really print her work except in the most rudimentary form. She didn’t exhibit or publish her work. It was a project entirely self-motivated, entirely self-fulfilling and this creates a certain freedom; a certain independence. It was her own personal voice.”
That personal voice was of a lone ranger living amongst so many of her colourful photo street subjects and numerous employment households and as time went by, the harsh reality of old age without friends or relations took its toll on Maier. Nannies became an almost extinct concept by the time the 80s and 90s rolled around and gainful employment became very challenging for her, leaving her dangerously close to destitution in her advancing years.
Towards the end of her life, the Gensburg brothers, whom Maier had looked after as children, came to her aid as she became poorer in old age. When she was about to be evicted from a cheap apartment in the suburb of Cicero, the brothers arranged for her to live in a better apartment on Sheridan Road in the Rogers Park Community area of Chicago until her death a few years later.
In November 2008, Maier fell on the ice and hit her head. It was a blow she would never recover from. She was taken to a hospital and a few months later, in January 2009, transported to a nursing home in Highland Park, where she died on April 21, unknown and obscure, just like so many of the characters she had photographed, where the streets had no name.
VivianMaier.com | The Maloof Collection