By now, many people will have heard of nanny Vivian Meier, who was revealed to be one of the 20th century’s very best street photographers when her astonishing body of work – often shot while she wandered the city of Chicago with her young charges – was discovered posthumously. It’s a remarkable story: in 2007, the amateur collector John Maloof came across several boxes of her photographs at an auction; over time, he tracked down her remaining possessions: over 150,000 photographs and negatives, hours of Super 8 footage, as well as audio recordings, receipts, letters – everything.
Finding Vivian Maier documents the attempt of directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel to tell her fascinating story by tracking down people who knew Maier – her employers, their children, the odd friend and relative. But the film is also about Maloof, who is now the sole owner of her work; it’s understandable, but somewhat regrettable, that he has been so heavily injected into the film. Maloof deserves enormous credit for tirelessly promoting her to the public, and to the sometimes less-than-receptive art establishment, but the truly captivating element of this tale is not Maloof, or even Maier, but the incredible artistry of her photographs.
in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on
10 November 2014 by Soda Pictures.
The woman was an enigma; she spoke with a French accent but was born and raised in New York; no one really seemed to know where she was from or what her background was. But she went everywhere with her camera, photographing the children she cared for, crime scenes, the destitute (think Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark), as well as creating incredible self-portraits using mirrors and glass – anything she could point her camera at.
The documentary is at its best when it reveals Maier’s photographs and films to the audience, and the narration at its strongest when we hear her own voice on the audio recordings. What is clearly evident is her ability to capture candid and beautiful moments on film; and while playing detective proved irresistible to the filmmakers, does it really matter if she was a hoarder, or, as she’s painted towards the end of the film, possibly mad and violent? There’s something uncomfortable and slightly sensationalist about a posthumous portrayal of a woman who can’t speak for herself.
Some of the very best documentaries are themselves works of art; skilfully written and shot, intricately pieced together. And while there’s little doubt about the value of Finding Vivian Maier in terms of revealing her work, it’s a shame that the documentary itself is a victim of conventional story-telling, with its over-reliance on talking heads, and insistence on a very concrete linear narrative, rather than something more abstract and innovative. But despite its flaws, the film should be seen, if only for the chance to experience Maier’s stunning photographs.
Watch the trailer: