Documentary Delight #2: Finding Vivian Maier

Have you ever dreamt of buying a treasure trove at auction? That’s what happened to John Maloof, a 26-year-old amateur historian from Chicago. In 2007, as part of a research project on a local neighbourhood’s history, he paid $380 for personal effects left stored in a public storage locker. What he found was a hoarder’s cache of personal memorabilia which included printed photos, audiotapes, videotapes, negatives, slides, and much undeveloped film; in all, over 100,000 photographs. These were the belongings of a nanny named Vivian Maier, who died in obscurity two years later.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of his discovery, and knowing next to nothing about photography, Maloof first had to find out what he had. He began the ongoing process of doing an inventory of her work. Then he took it upon himself to learn about the photographer who apparently never saw many of the pictures she herself had taken. It is a fascinating story, like a mystery, pieced together from the raw materials in his auction find, augmented by what he learned from others. He discovers the course of her career as a nanny, then her family roots in a village in France, her mother’s coming to America and then returning to raise her daughter in France, and Maier’s later travels around the world as a single woman on her own. He interviews people who had employed her or had been the children in her care. Although she always seemed to have her camera at hand, she never shared her photographs with anyone and no one knew of her skill and artistry. Maier emerges as a complex character, adventuresome, ambitious, obsessive, demanding, reclusive and intensely private. That she kept everything perhaps suggests that she knew she had great talent; the question is why she never went public with her photographs during her lifetime.

Her treasure trove is 40 years of photography, much of it street photography taken of ordinary people, in ordinary situations, on the streets of New York and Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s. One imagines Maier, her Rolleiflex camera around her neck, walking all over the city, with her eye ever alert to the faces, clothes and actions of people around her, the shops, the buildings and the public spaces. The city and its citizens, often with herself juxtaposed against them, were her favourite subjects. There are also many photographs of her native village in France, and of her trip around the world. Those who know her work now consider her one of the greatest American street photographers of the 20th Century.

The documentary (directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel) traces Maloof’s discovery of Maier’s photographs, her talent, and then her history. The world première of the film was held in New York on November 17, 2013, after a director’s première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Vancouver architect and photographer Rick Hulbert showed photos taken by Vivian Maier in his photography course at UBC last summer, as examples of street photography at its best. But for his praise of Maier’s work, I would not have known about her, nor chosen to see the movie. I am glad I did, and I suspect you will be too. The film opened this past weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver.

Apart from the film, Maloof has championed Maier’s talent in two art books published by powerHouse Books: Vivian Maier: Street Photographs (2011) and Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (2013). Exhibitions of her photography in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris and other European centres have earned rave reviews. Photographers and lay people alike will be amazed at her capacity to capture the essence of ordinary people so acutely.

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  1. Beth

    Wow! What a fascinating account. I will be sure to see the film and do more research on her. Thanks so much for this piece.

  2. Pingback: New Discoveries in Vienna | The Effervescent Bubble


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