“Finding Vivian Maier” is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary woman. It consists mainly of a series of interviews of persons who knew Vivian Maier in her earlier days.
Her work has come to light through the efforts of a young man named John Maloof who bought a box of negatives at an auction site for $380, thinking he might be able to use them in a book he was writing. The find seemed useless at first and he stored it away. He later scanned the negatives and put some of them on Flickr and got an outstanding reaction from viewers.
Vivian Maier Photograph By David Guyler - Wikimedia
Maloof Made Contacts
Google revealed nothing on the name Vivian Maier. Through an obituary, John Maloof was able to contact several people who knew her. She worked mainly as a nanny and a caretaker in Chicago in the 50s and 60s, and her many employers referred to her as paradoxical, eccentric, mysterious, and private. She was always seen with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera hanging from her neck. Many of her photographs were of the children she cared for.
Vivian Maier’s Background
John Maloof’s research revealed that Vivian Maier was born in New York City, spent most of her youth in France, and returned to the United States in 1951 where she began her career as a nanny which lasted her whole lifetime. She took photos over a period of five decades. The most curious revelation was that Vivian Maier never exhibited her work which has been compared to the masters.
A New Find
One former employer related to Maloof that he had a storage rental of Vivian Maier’s belongings which he paid for regularly. She was a packrat and the gentleman told Maloof he could have anything he wanted. A leather chest revealed rolls of undeveloped film. She had items wedged and hidden in everything she had. There were coupons, bus passes, clothing, and uncashed checks from the IRS worth thousands of dollars. John Maloof contacted the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, but they did not want the items.
Maloof revealed that the cache contained about 100,000 negatives ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. His interviews with her former employers disclosed that Vivian Maier was kind of a loner. She had no family, no lovers, no children, and she was like a mother to her charges. Some of the families, however, had mixed memories of her and hinted that she had a dark side also.
Exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center
In January 2011, John Maloof was able to mount an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, entitled “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer.” It turned out to have the biggest turnout for any artist which the Center had ever featured. Vivian Maier was receiving the fame in death which she had never acquired in her lifetime.
Characteristics of Vivian’s Work
Vivian Maier’s work revealed that she had a real savvy about human nature. She had human understanding, playfulness, a great eye, and a great sense of framing. Her sense of humor and of tragedy were beautiful. She had never shown her work to anybody. A piece of the puzzle was missing. Why did she make those images? John Maloof was managing to put her in the history books.
Exhibition of Vivian Maier's Work - Chicago 2011 Wikimedia
Tales about Vivian
Maloof talked to one of her charges who said that Vivian was his childhood nanny for four years. She was also a housekeeper and a caretaker for the boy’s mother. He had 16 millimeter movies and audiotapes that she had made. Maloof spoke to Phil Donahue who hired her as a housekeeper, but she was with him for less than a year. He remembered that Vivian had taken a picture of a child inside of a garbage can. He did not think she was crazy. He had some pictures of her also. She wore heavy clothes and boots, as though she were trying to hide her figure. She was at least 5’9” tall, maybe taller. She was heavy on her feet, swung her arms as she walked, and she rode a bicycle.
Vivian was Reclusive
Others said she was not an open person. She never talked about herself. She always wanted a lock on her room. Her camera was of an old style, called a disguise camera, which you held down low, where someone might not be aware they were being photographed. She could be secretive. She brought a bunch of boxes with her to her employer’s home which they put in the garage. She was so creative, and yet she was just a maid, a nanny.
The Children Loved Vivian
Another friend said Vivian spent the summer with them in Southampton. Nannies are still there today. Vivian had few friends, but this woman was her friend, and regarded her as a terrific person. They always held conversations with kids swirling around them all the time. She loved the children and the children loved her. Life was always more adventurous with her around. She would take the children on outings. They always stopped at Marshall Fields because the candy counter there had free samples. She would scoop up all the free samples for the children. She was eventually kicked out of Marshall Fields permanently for this.
One woman related that her brother had been hit by a car once and Vivian took pictures of him lying on the ground while they waited for an ambulance. There she was, above the fray taking pictures.
She was aware of politics and society. She would bring a cassette recorder and interview people about their politics. She made a movie once when a suburban babysitter had slain a young girl. She walked to the supermarket in the babysitter’s footsteps, and went to the funeral home, as though she was a journalist.
A man related that he had given Vivian a ride once when she was hitchhiking. She had a French accent which he deemed to be a fake accent. She said to call her “Smith.” She did not want to tell her name.
Vivian Left to Travel Around the World
Nobody ever called her Viv, just Vivian. She liked to keep secrets. Being a nanny was a good job for her; it provided shelter for her. She had no home. It also gave her free time for her photographic endeavors. She told an employer that she was going to travel the world for eight months. She brought back thousands of photos from her world travels.
John Maloof believed that Vivian would not like the attention she was getting at the present time; she would not like the intrusion. He felt guilty about exposing the work of someone who did not want to be exposed. She would never have let it happen.
Old-Style Camera - Wikimedia
Vivian’s Past is a Mystery
John Maloof could get very little information about Vivian’s past. Her whole family was a mystery. She lived with her mother. Her father was out of the picture early on. She had an older brother who was probably dead. Her mother was from France. They both lived in France for a while, in a village called Saint Bonnet en Champsaur. She returned to this place a lot.
John was seeing work for the first time that Vivian never saw herself. There has been more interest in Vivian’s work than many photographers that are more well-known. However, museums do not want to interpret a photograph that was never developed. It is being done, but nobody is doing it with Vivian’s work. It is recognized that it is very good work. Printing was not her thing even though she was a good photographer. John claims that the sale of prints will help this project to move forward.
Vivian Visited the Slums for her Pictures
One former charge of hers said that Vivian always had a money problem, and that it was too bad she wasn’t discovered earlier. She was her governess for seven years. She would take the children to the city in the worst part of town. She would take pictures of everything. She asked poor people to pose for her. She embarrassed the children so much. The woman was surprised that Vivian didn’t get shot. Her mom finally forbade Vivian to take the children to the slum area. She saw the bizarreness of life, and how human beings could sometimes be unappealing.
Criticism of Vivian
For the first time, John heard that Vivian was mean. She was angry about men. She told the young girls that men were all out to ruin you. The woman said that she thought Vivian must have been brutalized in some way. Something must have happened to her that was awful.
One woman related that Miss Maier lived upstairs over her father’s office and kept a padlock on it. She grudgingly gave the woman a key. The room was stacked with newspapers up to the ceiling. She stacked newspapers in the basement also. They were her employer’s newspapers, not her own. She was getting more reclusive, more of a hoarder. She was living with mental illness, well past being eccentric.
The woman worried about the end of Vivian’s life. Fortunately, her former kids got her an apartment and paid for the rent. She came a lot to sit on a bench near the water. People knew that she just wanted to be left alone. One day she fell in the park and an ambulance took her away. She died in a nursing home in 2009. She was buried in the park where she was always happy, by the boys who knew her when they were young.
Vivian is Known World-Wide
Many have now accepted Vivian’s work which is shown in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, Germany, and Denmark. They are embracing it, and they are embracing Vivian Maier. Maybe it is best that it happened after her death. In her life, she would have been overwhelmed. She did what she wanted. She got the life she wanted.
John Maloof and his co-director Charlie Siskel received an Oscar nomination for their documentary in 2015. It is a fascinating story that audiences will appreciate. It is sad, however, that Vivian Maier is not around to see her work recognized.