While conducting research on the history of his Chicago neighborhood, Finding Vivian Maier co-director John Maloof acquired a chest at a flea market auction containing thousands of negatives that belonged to a woman named Vivian Maier. What at first seemed like a hoarder’s detritus was in fact a treasure trove of piercingly humane photographs, revealing receipts, and 8mm film rolls. Struck by the clarity of vision and compassion in the woman’s work, largely composed of candid street photography that evokes the curiosity and compassion of Diane Arbus and the candor of Lisette Model, Maloof set out to uncover the life of this brilliant but undiscovered artist.
Finding Vivian Maier, which documents Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel’s four-year process of trying to construct the identity of the mysterious and posthumously illustrious photographer, is less a portrait of an artist as a young woman than a psychological evaluation of a slippery subject. It turns out Maier was a nanny by trade, and to acquaintances and employers she was a reclusive soul who eluded clear description, often using aliases and speaking in an affected French accent. Although the people in her life noticed the Rolleiflex camera perpetually slung around her neck, they never saw the work she created.
The investigative doc opens with a collection of befuddled talking heads uttering a deluge of adjectives: paradoxical, bold, mysterious, eccentric, and private. All agree that Maier had an obsessive quality about her and, as obsession begets obsession, Maloof exhibits—via coy, on-screen confessionals—a similarly unshaken fixation to discover the contradictions of Maier’s existence. Always clad in old-fashioned garbs, Maier would stroll through the roughest neighborhoods with the children she nannied, snapping clandestine photographs of down-and-out passersby during the day and then locking herself in her cluttered room at night. She was staunch and opinionated, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from the darker shades of Maier’s persona, presenting interviews that disclose varying reports which call her benevolence into question, such as anecdotes that indicate potential mental illness or an abuse-filled past.
As less flattering information is divulged, Finding Vivian Maier grows a bit sensationalistic and becomes as unorganized as Maier’s bins of ephemera, ultimately dwarfing her artistic accomplishments (even after Maloof briefly takes time to ask professional photographers to corroborate the quality of the woman’s work). But as the doc morphs from an artist biography into a tale of ontological analysis, Maloof and Siskel raise questions relating to the ethics of going public without the late artist’s approval and how the secrecy of Maier’s oeuvre yields larger quandaries about the function of one’s art.
Is there a point to art if it is never shown to an audience? Given our age of social-media-ready oversharing, it seems even more absurd to consider that these photographs could have been taken in vain. In hindsight, Maier’s reclusiveness lends a layer of understanding to her photography, illuminating the interior of her subjects with intuitive clarity. Finding Vivian Maier may be too distracted by the evidence of Maier’s neuroses, and too often forgoes linking the woman to her now vaunted art, but it never loses its infectious sense of curiosity and inquiry as a very necessary pursuit of truth.