BOY CULTURE REVIEW: **** out of ****
Vivian Maier died in a Chicago nursing home in 2009 in her eighties without ever having published her work, without ever having seen thousands of the images she shot and without owning a single negative—everything had been unceremoniously sold at auction along with the rest of her worldly possessions for a few hundred bucks a box once she was injured in a fall. Cheap, considering she had taken well over 100,000 images with her trusty, stealthy Rolleiflex from the late 1940s until some time in the 1990s.
When a historian and second-generation flea marketer, John Maloof, started scanning some of the negatives he'd bought in 2007, he sensed they were good. How good, he wasn't sure. Until posting a batch on Flickr, when users flipped out, reassuring him he had unearthed the work of a brilliant photographer. He bought up as much of Maier's output from other buyers as he could, eventually winding up with about 90% of it. Next, he began cataloguing everything—no easy task since Maier, about whom he knew absolutely nothing, had apparently been a packrat.
When her obituary pinged his Google search in 2009, Maloof learned a bit more about Maier—she'd been a nanny, a private figure, French.
But what else? And had she seen herself as an artist?
Armed with those and many other fascinating questions, Maloof and filmmaker Charlie Siskel produced the non-fiction feature Finding Vivian Maier, and it's as fine a documentary as you'd ever want to see. Maier's first-ever fan lovingly displays her uncannily perceptive, bluntly observational street photography and goes on a fruitful search to fill in the blanks of this mysterious loner, a journey that turns up many of the children she cared for in her capacity as a nanny (a job she seemed to gravitate to in order to free her up to shoot incessantly), former employers, what passes for friends and even some of the first people she ever photographed.
Maloof spares no expense in his search, traveling to the various places in the U.S. in which Maier, who would now be diagnosed as a hoarder, holed herself up, as well as visiting the tiny French village in which she took some of her first snapshots.
At first, it's easy to be jealous of Maloof—he stumbled across an archive of a woman who is arguably an until-now undiscovered master of photography (her eye calls to mind Weegee, Warhol and Arbus), a find that could become his life's work and generate millions of dollars over time. But it's impossible to dislike him, as respectful as he is of Maier's legacy, and yet as fair as he is with the people who knew her. Maloof even, bravely, allows for a vigorous exploration of Maier's dark side, a proposition that could cut into future sales. But that side of her—glaringly obvious in much of her work—was clearly too interesting for him to ignore, and helps make for a profile that veers from eccentric to foreboding. The filmmakers allow conflicting reports of Maier into the film, which further enriches her mystery.
Her life is both inspiring (a woman who made her own way and lived life on her own terms) and a cautionary tale (a woman whose obsessions may have been responsible for a tragically sad ending).
There are several gasp-inducing moments in the film that I won't allude to so that you may better enjoy the exciting twists and turns of what Maloof discovers, but suffice it to say that as bizarre as you may think a life might be when we're talking about a broke, mannish spinster who up and traveled to Egypt just for the photo ops, it was even more bizarre than that.
And don't get me started on the treasures Maier produced with her keen eye, intrepid approach and unbelievable luck—she may have shot for 40+ years, but Maier encounted way more than her fair share of once-in-a-lifetime scenes...and she seems to have captured them all.
Maloof (pictured at left) has one big hurdle in getting Maier into major institutions posthumously: She didn't really edit and print her own work, making it a bit harder to know what her intentions were. But judging from the many examples Maloof has shared with the world, if any institution or expert or entity is reluctant to acknowledge Maier's blinding gifts, fuck them. And if this film isn't nominated for an Oscar, then fuck the Oscars, and I mean that sincerely.
P.S. I want Emma Thompson to star in the eventual movie about her life.
Finding Vivian Maier has begun to roll out in various major markets. Click here for more info on where to see it in your area.