Armed with a Rolleiflex camera, the enigmatic Vivian Maier spent her life taking photographs. Her photographs are among the most outstanding examples of street photography in the US. However, despite being a prolific and talented photographer throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, her work was only discovered in 2007.
Finding Vivian Maier focuses on this discovery. Director John Maloof tells the camera how he accidentally stumbled upon some of Maier’s work when her storage locker was auctioned off. At first he thought nothing of the negatives he had bought but upon further investigation he realised their quality and made it his personal mission to get Vivian Maier and her work in the public consciousness. However, this would turn out to be a momentous task. Maier was a nanny who didn’t have any family, never printed her own photographs, didn’t demonstrate any interest in showing them to anybody and who was very firmly outside of the established art world canon.
Featuring interviews with the families that Maier nannied for, Maloof pieces together her story. It’s an extremely fragmented story. Some interviewees experienced a darker side of Maier which jar against the strawberry-picking-super-nanny image other people portray. One stumbling point of the film is that there is no true sense of chronology – it could well be that some of her charges got harsher treatment when she looked after them in later life, but it’s hard to tell. Instead, it seems that some people’s affection for her prevent them going fully into her true character and that the directors do not press the interviewees on this.
An 83 minute documentary absolutely cannot answer all of the questions about Maier’s life and her work. The most pertinent question is whether Maier would be happy about the attention. Maloof takes a letter sent to an acquaintance in France as proof that she did have aspirations of showing her work but to me, the viewer, this seems a little flimsy. Clearly, as one of the main rights holders to her catalogue of work, Maloof is biased on presenting this evidence.
For me Finding Vivian Maier raises more questions than it answers. I’m interested in the question of posthumous rights and the ethics of selling other people’s art. This feels a little glazed over and I’d be fascinated to hear further discussion of these issues. Besides this, the remaining mystery adds to the intrigue of Vivian Maier. An outstanding photographer, the original queen of the selfie and “kind of a spy”, people should know about her work, and hopefully Maier will be happy that they now do.