A woman walks around with a camera around her neck and a child by her side. Some 50-odd years later, a man buys a box of negatives for about $300. They’re not precisely the kind of photos he was looking for, so he stashes the negatives away. Then one day, he pulls them out and starts looking at them. He likes what he sees so he checks the name of the photographer: Vivian Maier. Like all good people of the 21st century, he Googles her. There’s nothing.
That’s really where the story of Vivian Maier begins — with the amazing fact that the only proof of her existence are the photographs she took. This sort of traceless life is as fantastical as unicorns today. No matter how delicately and quietly we may try to tread, we leave footprints and reflections in a digital universe that is fast becoming as real — if not more so — as the physical world we inhabit. We photobomb pictures unwittingly; we appear in comments; there’s a mosaic portrait that’s being put together no matter how far you retreat from the virtual world.
Not with Maier. She lived for 83 years, worked as a nanny and caregiver, travelled around the world, met hundreds of people, and yet even now, there are only two things that can be said of her with any degree of certainty: she was born in New York and she took photographs. And this is after the chap who found her negatives has bought pretty much all she possessed, researched her life and made a documentary on her.
Finding Vivian Maier by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel reminded me a little of Searching for Sugarman. Both of them begin with only works of art that offer few clues about the artist behind them, and in both, the filmmakers embark on a fact finding mission. Finding Vivian Maier isn’t as craftily-told as Searching for Sugarman. It’s a more straightforward, chronological account of both Maloof’s efforts to find out who Maier was and Maier’s life. At regular intervals, his interviewees remind us that Maier is a tough nut to crack. She didn’t talk about herself much. She locked her room and didn’t let anyone enter. Genealogists despair at how little information there is about her family. All of which is, no doubt, meant to make you admire Maloof all the more for having persisted despite museums like MoMA politely rejecting his offer to donate Maier’s work to them.
When you look at Maier’s photographs, there seems to be little doubt that MoMA made a big mistake when they passed on this collection. It’s also pretty obvious that Finding Vivian Maier is partly Maloof’s attempt at legitimising a body of work that he is now selling and showcasing at different galleries around the world. Maloof doesn’t hide the fact that he’s making money from this project, but to be fair, he is the one who found the negatives, scanned them, printed them, framed them etc. etc.
(All these photos are from the blog that Maloof set up for Maier’s work back in 2011.)
But never mind Maloof. What about Maier? Maloof found people who had hired her, children (now adults) who had been in her care and pretty much anyone who remembered seeing her. There’s a lot that comes out. Maier was a hoarder — she collected newspapers, badges, receipts and a lot of rubbish. She was fascinated by morbid headlines and creepy places. She created a false identity for herself by adopting a vaguely European accent. Later, she pretended to be “a sort of spy” and gave a false name to people. Some of the children she took care of were fond enough of her to rent an apartment for her when she grew too old to work. Others accused her verging on abusive. The only thing that everyone agrees upon is that she always had a camera around her neck.
It seems Maier was born in New York and that the Maier family wasn’t particularly close-knit. However, the one person Maier held on to was her mother, French-born Marie. It’s almost as if she tried to become her mother. Not only would Maier go on to fake a hint of a French accent, she told people that she was born in France. Maier would also go to the village in France where her mother’s from and meet that side family a number of times, both as a child and as an adult. Her mother was a photographer too. There’s a lovely but fleeting moment in Finding Vivian Maier when a doddering cousin of Maier’s brings out a camera. Maloof thinks its Maier’s but no, it’s Maier’s mother’s camera. The one time that Maier tried to get her photographs out of the boxes and in public, she wrote to a photo studio in that little French village, asking if they would print postcards of her work.
Finding Vivian Maier doesn’t offer the ride that Searching for Sugarman did, but it’s fascinating to realise you can have so many little pieces of a puzzle and still not see the entire picture. By the end of the documentary, we don’t really know whether Maier was a nice woman, whether she was a good friend, what her favourite colour was, if she had a history of abuse, if she was an abuser. Did she begin as an eccentric and end up to be completely cuckoo in her last years? Why did she wear men’s clothes? Did she like the work she did or was it just a means of enabling her photography? Even her fascination for her mother’s French background is conjecture. All we have are her photographs and the only thing they tell us about Vivian Maier is that she was a helluva photographer.