Finding Vivian Maier

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 28, 2014

A scene from ’Finding Vivian Maier’
A scene from ’Finding Vivian Maier’  (Source:Photo by Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection)

When John Maloof bought a box of old photos for $300 at an auction, he was thinking he'd use the images as research for a book about the history of Chicago. What he found were clues to a much more mysterious personal history of a gifted and prolific photographer -- and a treasure trove of her work.

Maloof's dogged detective work, and his interviews with personal friends and families that employed her, provides fascinating material for his documentary, "Finding Vivian Maier." Moreover, Maloof has become an ardent advocate of Maier's work, photos the artist took over a span of decades using a Rolleiflex camera that, unlike most moles, is held at chest level. This gives man of Maier's photos an unusual vantage, and allows her subjects to look imposing, a little larger than life -- even heroic. But the people she chose to photograph are not necessarily heroic types; they're ordinary people on the street, doing ordinary things; or they're children; or they are people who are down on their luck, who Maier snapped while on her trawls through run-down and sometimes dangerous neighborhoods.

Remarkably, and maybe reckless, Maier often had children in tow as she trawled the less safe quarters of the cities where she lived and worked. Employed as a nanny (and, on at least one occasion, a caregiver for an elderly client), Maier led what amounted to a double life. Her camera lens may have provided her a kind of safety when dealing with the wider world; shopkeepers Maloof visits recall how private Maier was, to the point of refusing to give her real name or phone number. In the seclusion of her own dwelling space, Maier seems to have created warrens that literally insulated her from the world at large: Spaces filled with stacks of newspapers, along with all of her other possessions (including a number of tax refund checks that she never bothered to deposit -- tens of thousands of dollars' worth in all). The newspapers had a sinister double significance, for Maier was fascinated with strange and bloody crimes, and when she did get around to clipping items of interest they invariably dealt with murder, mayhem, assault... human horrors that, some of those interviewed here speculate, echoed for her traumatic experiences of her own.

Some of the children whom Maier looked after, now adults, recall abuse at their nanny's hands. One woman recounts how Maier held her down and "force fed" her: "She would hold me down -- she would force the food into my throat -- and she would choke me until I'd swallow it." One man sums up with a simple, "She was mean." And a now-adult former charge notes how Maier "had this anger in her toward men... She was always afraid of being touched."

And yet, Maier cultivated a rich inner vision that allowed her to capture moments, as one photo expert puts it, of "warmth" and "tenderness." She had a way of getting her subjects to open up and "be themselves" for a moment. As for who Maier was? That's still uncertain; one man insists that Maier had the remnants of a native French accent, and another man, a linguist, is equally certain that Maier's accent was an affectation. Many seem surprised to learn of her origins: Born February 1, 1926, in New York City. But that air of mystique and European exoticism was not entirely unearned: Maier's mother was French, and she spent some time as a girl in the small French Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur.

Moreover, though some experts who survey her work for Maloof's camera lament that Maier could (and should) have been a famous photographer in her own time, it seems that Maier herself was of a divided mind about pursuing her photography past the point of clicking the shutter release: Maloof found hundreds of rolls of film that Maier had never bothered to get processed, and those who knew her insist that Maier would never have enjoyed recognition or celebrity. That said, there's evidence she flirted with the idea of turning some of her work into postcards, maybe for commercial sale -- although her proposition to this end was directed at the owner of a photo shop in her ancestral French village.

Whether Maloof has "found" Maier or simply peeled back a few of innumerable layers to provide a partial glimpse is a matter for discussion. But what anchors the film and holds the eye are the photos, and the home movies, that Maier created, which notably included many self-portraits showing Maier in mirrors with her Rolleiflex. "She's got a great eye," marvels one expert. "A beautiful sense of light and environment." She was also, one can't help thinking -- with a sense of fun that Maier's body of work possesses and inspires -- that, decades before cameras built into smart phones, she was an inveterate creator of selfies.

As far as this goes, Maier herself provides us with the most stirring portrait of herself: A woman almost disguised in unflattering clothes, who seems, in portraits of herself, to be there almost incidentally.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.