Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about an undiscovered artist which unfolds how a forensic case would. We start off with a young man John Maloof buying a box of film negatives at an auction to help with the history book he is writing and hopes that the negatives will have some images of Chicago from the earlier years that he can use. Once he looks at the negatives he realizes it is not what he needs and puts the box away. That should have been it, but the strength of the images keeps haunting Maloof and he starts thinking about who this person was. The name Vivian Maier – a google search reveals nothing (and now there are 4.7 million results) he starts to scan the images and posts them on Flickr – the social network for photography enthusiasts. The response he gets is astounding and he starts piecing the life of this artist together.
A few days after posting the images on Flickr Maloof does another google search and an obituary note for Vivian Maier turns up. She died a few days ago. Getting in touch with poster of the obituary note leads Maloof to a self-storage that holds the personal belongings of Miss Maier. Maloof then starts unearthing other fragments of the life of this undiscovered artist who for the most part of her life worked as a nanny. There are thousands upon thousands of film negatives with images of such startling quality that it is immediately clear that this was more than just a passing hobby of a nanny.
With interviews from families she was a nanny, a governess, a housekeeper Maloof puts the pieces of the puzzle together. There are audio tapes and even video recordings that Vivian took to essentially document the world she saw through her eyes and the shutter of the rolleiflex. This tells a story of a woman who had a humor about her and the way she captured the world around her with each frame cleverly juxtaposing the extremities of the human existence in the most humorous setting and also not shying away from political commentary. A number of her striking images are used in this movie but you get a sense of the documentary only scratching the surface of her genius. The picture of the black kid polishing the boots of a white kid is such a strong image that could be looked at in so many contexts that it begs the question of how much more treasure does her entire collection hold.
The humorous woman we are introduced to via the pictures suddenly becomes something entirely different with her previous wards describing her behavior as odd and eccentric, guarded and paranoid, with an odd fixation on the crime stories in the newspapers. It just starts becoming clearer that despite the fact that she obviously knew how talented she was she didn’t feel connected to the world around her to want to share her point of view. There are tales of how she traveled the world and documented images she took overseas but also of the odd behavior where despite being born in New York she put on a fake French accent and wore manly and ill-fitted clothes. She took self-portraits so there was a definite vanity in her but the face was always in a quizzical and detached expression. There are two interviews in particular that make you feel for Vivian, one where while she was still a nanny and the family wanted to be foster parents to another child Vivian asks them to take care of her instead and another towards the later part of her life when she runs into an old employer and Vivian begs her to sit with her and spend some time but she can’t as she has to get to the beach. But then there are some interviews which make you question if she was in fact ever a right choice to be a nanny to kids. One generic observation I have looking at all the people who were interviewed in the film is that at least the kids who Vivian looked after seem to all have a certain quality about them that makes them slightly odd, almost a little bitter with a tendency to laugh at the oddest things. I could be reading too much into it but I felt a little uncomfortable listening to these people who would appear to have some discomfort in a social situation. Also Maloof seems a little suspect to me – about how he rails on against the art establishment for not hosting a Vivian Maier show (MOMA and Tate modern for instance). I really see no point in bringing it up in this documentary which is essentially to bring the brilliance of this nanny cum street photographer who might just be one of the most influential photographers.
But the movie is not about these people – it is about the people Vivian captures through her lens and the story she is trying to tell of the people and the situations she sees around herself. And what a fascinating conversation that is. I wish the movie ended with a collage/montage of more of her images and that a few of her self-portraits. This is among the best documentaries I have seen because it introduces a subject matter that would otherwise remain unexplored and Vivian Maier is one of the most intriguing characters I have come across – it has been a few days since I saw the movie and her persona and the images he captured still are playing over and over in my head and that laugh she had when she was speaking about the weird phone calls she received after posting an ad in the newspaper for work. Vivian Maier was an enigma and I cannot wait to see more of her pictures.