John Maloof’s story of discovering a previously undiscovered photographer of extraordinary quality and insight is tinged throughout with an inevitable sadness. Scouring auctions of unclaimed items in search of old photos for a personal project, he stumbled upon boxes of negatives. Little did he know the find would trigger a compulsive need to uncover the true story of the photographer and her compelling snaps. As the layers are peeled back from the life of the enigmatic Vivian Maier, and fractured clues are pieced together, a composite slowly forms. This tall, arresting woman, glimpsed so often in her own shots – in awkward self-portraits and reflective surfaces – seemed to be shielding a troubled past from even the few people she became reasonably close to. Many of these were, in fact, children as Maier made her meagre living from working as a nanny, all the while devotedly recording for posterity freeze-frames of the world evolving around her through a look-down Rolieflex camera.
Thousands of striking, often terrifying and haunting images are testament to Maier’s artist’s instincts for extracting wordless, poetic meaning from the mundaneness of life. But do they offer just as pointed an insight into her own bleak perspective, one that many of the interviewees in Finding Vivian Maier (2014) suspect was tainted by a troubled upbringing and even a suggestion of abuse? Many questions still remain: her origins, with French on one side of her family; her lack of romantic attachments; her fear of being touched and of men in general; the authenticity of her slight French accent which seemed an affectation to many; the reasons for her seemingly inexplicable desire to distribute her work to a broader audience – all these and more are exhumed and speculated upon.
Any artist’s tale needs a healthy dose of mystery attached to it and Maier’s story honours the tradition; it’s one of eccentricity and suggestiveness, with new pathways – bereft of clues – to explore. But the mysterious core of Maier is mostly untouched, except at its very edges, leaving us curious and fascinated to know more. Maloof and his co-director Charlie Siskel have assembled their journey skilfully and economically, whittling it down to a concise 80 minutes.
Though the innocuous, fortuitous discovery of Maier’s work and Maloof’s attempts to preserve and champion her artistry make for compelling enough viewing, the stunning array of black and white photos are what elevate the film to another level of perception and will have you racing on line to relive in greater detail. Maier’s ability to step into a moment and hold it still for all of eternity is quite something; you can neither look away nor look and remain unaffected. Her portraits of Chicago street life, often documenting startlingly ordinary moments in the lives of the down-and-out are like the conjuring of an army of ghosts from the truck load of negatives that, without Maloof’s random buy, may still be neglected or even extinguished from existence altogether.
Finding Vivian Maier is now out on DVD through Vendetta Films.