Vivian Maier died in penniless obscurity five years ago; today she is fast becoming a phenomenon.
On both sides of the Atlantic an award-winning film about her life and work has been released to critical acclaim. Entitled Finding Vivian Maier, it is as much a tale of detection as the story of an artist. As the film’s final credits roll, however, one can’t help wondering if the enigma surrounding the woman at its center has only just increased. Such is the paradox of Vivian Maier.
In 2007, a young man named John Maloof bought boxes of photographic negatives at a Chicago auction house. Taking a chance and spending a few hundred dollars, he made the purchase knowing the items could prove worthless. On first look, this appeared to be the case, however, the images he saw were intriguing enough to spark his curiosity. Maloof thought the photographs good, but then had to admit he knew nothing about photography. Nevertheless, he felt there was something here, if not sure what exactly. It was at this point that his quest began. With little more than the name of the photographer, and even that had multiple spellings, he started to search for answers. The principal question he faced being: who was Vivian Maier? Initial searches drew a blank—a complete blank in fact. Frustratingly, nothing turned up, it was like she had never existed, but he had evidence to the contrary and so persisted.
Maloof and his collaborators are to be commended, as, watching the film, one feels Maier did all she could to cover her tracks. Nevertheless, through a combination of dogged determination and more than a little sleuthing the filmmakers managed to construct a portrait of an artist as compelling as any committed to screen in recent years. And, in the process, unearthed a unique photographic record of New York City and Chicago. In addition, what was becoming apparent, from the reactions of professional photographers and public alike, was the power of these images: once seen they were unlikely to be forgotten. For the filmmakers, however, the opposite was the case in regard to the woman behind the camera.
What they did find was that Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for families in Chicago and New York City from the early 1950s through to the 1980s. She was a tall, slightly ungainly woman who, although good with children, seemed to have no relationships to speak of—family or otherwise. The families for whom she worked, and who had known her for years, were later to realize they knew nothing about her. She had a ‘funny’ accent, some said she was ‘French’, others thought it was a pose—no one knew for sure. She was by all accounts an intensely private individual. There was only one feature, however, that everyone had noticed, and upon which there was unanimous agreement, namely, that she was never without a camera.
The camera was how she made sense of the world, her way into it, and, ultimately a release from it. Through the viewfinder a new reality opened up, one in which she was no longer “only the nanny” but instead an artist, a framer of life as well as its interpreter; in short, she found her identity in and through photography. All the more curious then that, during her lifetime, no one was to see the estimated 100,000 pictures she took. They were to be concealed from the world; remaining a private inventory of what its owner had witnessed—a record of the internal world of Vivian Maier.
Many years after the photographs were taken, and years after Maier had died, their subsequent unveiling was to be met with amazement. How could such a trove have stayed hidden for so long? Today, many of the photographs may be seen on line. What they reveal is part social history and part psychological study: as intriguing as they are revealing; as sharply observed as they are moving. In brief, it is hard not to be affected by their viewing, a verdict shared by many across the United States and Europe. It appears we are witnessing the start of an important artistic reputation, and one that seems destined only to grow.
Perhaps, this is not wholly surprising. Maier was in many ways the consummate artist. She lived for her art, without plaudit or recognition. In fact, no one knew of her passion, presumably, her constant photographing was viewed as merely “the nanny’s hobby”—something of little consequence. And yet, all the while in her small cramped living quarters she was hoarding a pictorial record of American streets like few had managed to record. For decades, she persisted, cataloguing all those who passed through or inhabited the ever-changing cityscape. In the main it was to be the poor that she chose to chronicle. It was an easy identification for her to make. The homeless and the lost, the odd and the grotesque, the infirm as well as children, in the rawness of urban living she had an eye for vulnerability. Of particular note are the portraits: case studies in the disappointed and lonely, the dispossessed and quietly despairing, the angry and the mad. It is said that artists often reveal as much of themselves as they do the subjects under their consideration. If so, what does this tell us of the enigmatic Miss Maier?
Maier was as good at photographing herself as any of her other subjects. Throughout the movie, these self-portraits, from the early 1950s onwards, become a constant theme. Superficially, she appeared to change little. Her clothes were such that she could have been from any era or none—by all accounts she dressed functionally. Although her face was not particularly distinctive, her gaze was another matter. Often she posed looking away from the camera, but, then, occasionally she would turn and stare straight at the lens. Even today that look remains unnerving such was the force of personality behind it. In picture after picture, however, as the years roll by, the look appeared to harden. Tellingly, with the exception of some of the earliest shots, she was the one taking the self-portrait; so increasingly, they became pictures of isolation. One suspects it was only in her photography that her true emotions were able to find vent. Otherwise, her life was a series of dichotomies: she lived with families but was destined never to be part of a family; was surrounded by smiling children, but none were hers; and was forever taking shot after shot of other people none of whom ever asked for her photograph.
The film speculates about the obvious question: why she never exhibited her photographs? On screen, we witness professional photographer after professional photographer state how good her technical ability was, how original her style, and so on. In fact, one such is shown some of the images without any prior explanation and asked to comment, she just assumes it to be the work of a famous photographer. Maloof’s original hunch that these pictures were good has now been validated time and again by art critics. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Maier could have been a significant figure in late twentieth-century photography: exhibited and critiqued, lauded and studied, wealthy and valued. Instead, known to virtually no one, she was to die an impoverished recluse.
So, in the end, about its subject, what is drawn from this celluloid puzzle? Nothing conclusive, some words Maier said seemed to point to an exaggerated distrust of men—inevitable inferences are made, but with little evidence. Some of the children talk of a dark side. At times, their nanny could be physically abusive but these occasions seem to have been exceptional, and, in any event, may have pointed to something else, namely, that, by then, she was falling apart. Her last nanny jobs were curtailed due to her “eccentricity”—behavior that had descended into something more akin to mental illness. At that point, however, she was out of reach, with her obsessive privacy a prison. The movie glosses over the final years, perhaps mercifully so—one suspects they were far from good. At the end, neighbors remembered an elderly woman sat alone on a park bench day after day; there were to be no more photographs.
Watching this absorbing documentary, one suspects that if she had lived she would have found an unexpected supporter in the current Holy Father. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes the following:
It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares.
Through her view finder, Vivian Maier’s “gaze” was essentially contemplative—there was a real compassion and deep humanity in her work that strikes the viewer from the start. Daily, she glimpsed and then reported something beyond the humdrum and the bizarre; in fact, in the whole panoply of human life lived out on the streets she recorded a curious transcendence. The discovery of those boxes of negatives, and what they contain, may be timelier than we think.
The film’s producers claim to have found its subject; granted they discovered her “secret”—rolls and rolls of film—if not quite her secrets, not yet anyway. Nevertheless, in “finding” Vivian Maier, paradoxically, they may have only succeeded in deepening the mystery around a woman who, in the end, was ignored and then forgotten by the world she documented, and, regardless of what that world now thinks of her, is lost to it forever.