The Myth of Vivian Maier

Madeline Coleman on Finding Vivian Maier, a new documentary opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Madeline Coleman on Finding Vivian Maier, a new documentary opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, March 28.

The new documentary Finding Vivian Maier offers less satisfying conclusions than the title might imply. Coproduced and directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof, it follows the latter’s quixotic search for information about Maier, the woman whose photographs he discovered at an auction in 2007. This visually conventional documentary unravels the life of a secret street photographer, a native New Yorker who grew up in France and died destitute in a Chicago hospital in 2009 after decades working as a nanny to families in that city’s suburbs. She had no children of her own. She never married, had no known lovers or friends. What Maier did have, however, was a camera. She took hundreds of thousands of pictures on the streets of Chicago and on solo trips around the world, none of which she ever published or exhibited. Finding Vivian Maier is an overt bid for Maier’s inclusion in the photographic canon, but its depiction is too simple for such an elusive subject.

The film is structured through interviews with families Maier worked for, testimonies from photographers Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz, and selections from Maier’s photographs and films. Maloof, an earnest, neatly coiffed young man in black-framed glasses who speaks directly into the camera throughout the film, is an amateur historian who first discovered a crate of Maier’s photographs while searching for historical photos of Chicago. When he drew rave reviews from Flickr users after scanning and posting some of these found negatives to the site, he went on the hunt for more. Using Maier’s name, which he had learned from the auction house when he bought the initial box, he was able to amass countless crates and suitcases of negatives; prints; undeveloped rolls of both color and black-and-white film; reels of 8 and 16 mm film; and sundry other belongings. Maloof is in thrall to the photographs and films he uncovered, and they are affecting: Maier was a talented street photographer with an eye for geometry, texture, hilarity, and pathos. She sometimes photographed the children she cared for and took many self-portraits, capturing her own serious image—well-loved Rolleiflex strung around her neck—in shop windows, mirrors, and shadows. One of the few things we do know about Maier is that for decades she never went anywhere without a camera.

Maloof, who admits to not having been particularly interested in photography prior to his discovery of Maier’s work, has campaigned tirelessly to get his collection into museums. He doesn’t seem to have succeeded in that yet, but thanks to his efforts, Maier’s work has now been shown widely in galleries across the U.S. and Europe; her print sales are managed by Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York. But it’s hard to separate the success of these exhibitions from the irresistible myth of the artist’s story: toiling in obscurity for decades until finally, after death, her work is discovered and her genius revealed.

This is where things get complicated. Despite his apparent devotion to Maier’s work, Maloof and his co-director Siskel have devoted the majority of the film to often-damning first-person testimony from the photographer-nanny’s employers. All of them describe her as mysterious and eccentric; some loved her, but some recount a hard and even abusive caretaker, a hoarder who amassed stacks of old newspapers and once force-fed a picky eater by choking her until she swallowed. Maier is remembered as doggedly secretive, bolting the door to her quarters and never revealing anything about her past to the families she lived with.

Through these interviews, the filmmakers put forth the hypothesis that anyone acting as Maier did must have been traumatized or abused. Why else would she avoid physical contact with men and choose to live alone? Who wouldn’t want the good life? At odds with this interpretation is the fact that Maier was political and fiercely independent, taken with documenting the homeless and the poor, as well as interviewing and tape-recording people waiting in line at the grocery store about current events. When one young woman is unable to answer her questions, Maier scolds her: “Well, you should have an opinion—women are supposed to be opinionated, I hope?”

With her insatiable appetite for documentation, newspapers, and politics, Maier was clearly obsessed with understanding her time. And yet despite Maloof’s desire to place her in the canon, this documentary is curiously absent historical and art historical context. (The only time she’s discussed in relation to other mid-century street photographers is in the short interviews with Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz.) There’s no discussion of women’s conditions at the time, although Maier’s options, when she arrived in Chicago in the 1950s, must have been severely limited: she was a single, working-class woman in her thirties with no money, family, or higher education. She rejected the obligation to marry and have babies at a time when such a decision would have been highly unusual. Her story is ripe for a feminist or even queer reading. With a subject who knew it was all about context, the filmmakers owe her that much.

In one of the film reels included in Finding Vivian Maier, Maier tried her hand at her own narrative documentary. She shows a headline on a newspaper: a local babysitter has been killed by her employer. Maier, fascinated, retraces her steps. Film rolling, she visits the store where the girl found the fatal job posting, and follows the newspaper account until finally she arrives at a funeral home. She lingers on the hearses pulling up outside. Throughout Maloof and Siskel’s documentary, the photographer is depicted as an unenviable, isolated, and lonely figure—an unheralded artist, but also an object of pity. This film of hers tells a different story: “there but for the grace of God go I.” After all, Maier survived.

Madeline Coleman is a copy editor at Aperture Foundation.