Vivian Maier, the cypher at the center of this bio-documentary clearly did not want to be found and she did a masterful job of maintaining her anonymity. It was only after John Maloof, a young historical preservationist who was working on a book about Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood and needed some vintage prints to include and chanced upon a box of negatives and prints of old Chicago at an auction. He bought the lot for a few hundred dollars for the book project and then put them away. A few years later he retrieved the trove of around 30,000 prints, negatives and undeveloped film and was overwhelmed by what he had. He began scanning the negatives and printing them while trying to find out who was this Vivian Maier who had made these extraordinary images. He posted on the internet and got no responses. It was the obituary of Vivian Maier in the Chicago Tribune which led him to find out many of the details of her life and then to acquire more of her work, much of which was in storage and on the verge of being tossed out due to lack of payment. By then he had become a man obsessed and he now owns 100,000 images in various forms including videos. The film’s trajectory covers the discoveries by John Maloof, from his first exposure to her work, then uncovering details of her life as revealed through interviews with her employers and the grownup children she cared for, and his dedicated campaign to bring her work to the public and assure that she gets the recognition which she so rightly deserves. He seems to be the spiritual son of Vivian Maier. (There is also an uncanny physical resemblance). His time, energy and devotion to achieving this goal appears to be on the same level as Ms. Maier’s was to document all that she could embrace.
Her work is, quite simply, brilliant and holds up favorably next to some of the iconic photographers of her time. Her street work has the best qualities of Helen Levitt, Weegee, and Robert Frank. She has as many “decisive moments” as Henri Cartier- Bresson, her portraits rival Diane Arbus, her compositions are as rigorously balanced as Andre Kertesz and she reveals an Elliot Erwit-like drollery in the way she frames and crops her images. As a photographer, it is a body of work which is completely envymaking.
That she had had worked as a nannie for most of her adult life and found the time to take so many photographs without being a full-time photographer is remarkable. We do know that at one point she had a darkroom in one of the places where she worked. This enabled her to process and print her own pictures proving that she was certainly skilled and was not some accidental prodigy. When she began shooting seriously she used a Rolliflex and the square format really suited her style. She later used various SLR cameras including a Leica and photographed in color. It seems that most of her color work was never processed. She also somehow found the time and money to travel to Yemen, India, Egypt, Canada and much of southeast Asia while taking more superb pictures.
But far from finding the woman, she still remains an enigma. The portrait that emerges from the interviews is extremely ambiguous - ranging from affection and gratitude to incomprehension and fear. She was a plain-looking, awkward, childless spinster, definitely an eccentric, a prodigious hoarder, beyond secretive, who apparently never showed her work to anyone. That fact alone is so incomprehensible as to render all that we do know as meaningless. What motivated this monumental output of work, much of which even she never got to see? I think the answer lies in the work. It absolutely speaks for itself. It reveals a depth of empathy and appreciation for humanity with all of its idiosyncrasies as well as the trappings of civilization on every level - but particularly for the marginalized and the overlooked. And perhaps therein lies the answer. She saw herself as one of them. This was her world and she made it her own. They were her family.
Review by Belle McIntyre