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Finding Vivian Maier

April 25, 2014
Finding Vivian Maier

John Maloof bid on the trunk of old photographs hoping to find stock shots to use in one of his own projects. What he found was a treasure trove. The shots were a small portion of the work of a woman named Vivan Maier, who worked as a nanny for various Chicago families while taking some of the most striking street photography of the middle of the 20th century. She was also an intensely private person, never publishing her photographs, nor even letting her few close friends know the extent of her considerable talent. Her photos are wonderful, but Maloof’s film, Finding Vivian Maier goes far beyond them to dig up a life she made every attempt to hide, and for little reasonable purpose.

Maier took most of her photographs while dragging — sometimes literally — her charges on long jaunts across the city, especially through the more run-down neighborhoods. Her box Rolleiflex camera allowed her to shoot candidly — from the hip, as it were — and catch her subjects as they were. The posture meant the lens was usually looking upwards toward their faces. The images come from a child’s perspective, with a great big world towering all around. And it wasn’t always a pretty world that she captured; Maier had a taste for the tragic and even the macabre.

Maier’s interaction with the world through the lens of a camera may have also served as a defense against it. She never spoke of her family. She demanded each employer provide her a living area in the house with a door she could lock. She was a hoarder; the rooms behind her door would invariably be filled with stacks of newspapers and piles of stuff, to the point that the floor would sag under the weight. Whatever she couldn’t fit in the rooms would be pawned or placed in storage lockers, often under false names. And she could be obsessively protective of her collections.

It seems likely that she was mentally ill, but airing that all out in public now that she’s dead seems more than a little intrusive, particularly when she spent so much effort in life trying to stay private. Everyone who comments in the film is mystified why she wouldn’t publish her work. They ask why someone would even take a picture if not for it to be seen. But ultimately the answer is Maier’s alone to give; just because you don’t understand someone’s reasoning doesn’t mean you get to substitute your own.

Besides, Maloof is the filmmaker, and he can pick and choose the comments he includes to support whatever position he wants. He’s far from a disinterested observer, after all; in the absence of an estate, he owns the rights to all the prints he makes off of Maier’s negatives. This film exists in part to justify their publication and sale, and to drive up their price as more people become interested in her work. This is a sales pitch, with the spectacle of Vivian Maier as a draw.

If it were just enough about her life to help understand the photographs, that would be one thing. With no explicit directive never to print them, Maloof can treat the negatives as found media and use them to create his own art: the prints. He even manages to dig up part of Maier’s correspondence with a printer in her mother’s Haute-Alpin hometown, but there’s no indication a deal was reached so she may well have reconsidered. Besides, there’s a big difference between printing and publication that Maloof races past in order to justify lining his own pockets with her Maier’s work.

But most of the film is not about the work anyway, but about Maier herself. Her photographs and home movies are used to illustrate the stories her former employers and charges tell, but erratically. Sometimes they seem to be pictures she took during the anecdotes, and sometimes they bear some similarity to the subjects. By the end, Maloof even includes a bizarre sequence of his own. A woman tells of meeting Maier long after her active period while headed to the beach on a hot summer’s day. Maier herself didn’t go to the beach, but still Maloof pairs the story with his own black-and-white video of a beach, incongruously shot in winter.

That closing sequence is the starkest example of what’s wrong with most of the film: it illustrates nothing about Maier’s art, but serves only to make her into a sideshow act. It’s a young, well-off, healthy man telling a poor, mentally ill old woman he knows better than her how publicly she should have lived her life. He strips away her right to privacy in the name of his own curiosity and greed, which he obviously considers more important. And in the process she is reduced, like Ouisa said of Paul in Six Degrees of Separation: we turn her into an anecdote, to dine out on after the movie. Maloof gets her employers and friends to make her a punch line: “Oh, that reminds me of the time that secretive hoarder worked as our nanny; tell the one about that woman.”

Print and publish the photos; she never said explicitly not to. But after about twenty minutes in, Finding Vivian Maier isn’t really about understanding the artwork anymore, it’s about making a troubled woman dance for our amusement and Maloof’s profit. If there’s one thing Vivian Maier never wanted, it was to be found, and the best tribute to her memory would be to honor that wish.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

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