Street photography, as any shy practitioner acutely understands, is a public art. Even if it’s not displayed in the streets, like downtown sculpture (or Wing Young Huie’s inventive bus stop images, for that matter), photographs are fundamentally of the people. You can’t do the art without them. But how much does photography actually tell us about its subjects, even when they’re caught off guard, at their most bare? What can we know from a passing glance perfectly frozen?
Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Producers: Jeff Garlin, John Maloof, Chris McKinley, Lars Mortensen, Mary Prendergast, Charlie Siskel
Writers: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Cinematographer: John Maloof
Editor: Aaron Wickenden
Music: J. Ralph
Cast: John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark, Phil Donahue
Premiere: September 9, 2013 –Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 28, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
Better, perhaps, than any other in recent memory, outsider photographer Vivian Maier embodies the tensions inherent to the medium between anonymity and exposure, intimacy and obscurity, surface and depth. A compulsive shutterbug, she took hundreds of thousands of photographs, usually portraits of city folk she didn’t know, and showed them to almost no one. Most she did not even develop. Yet, as photographer Mary Ellen Mark testifies in Finding Vivian Maier, Maier’s work is on par with Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model—the giants of twentieth century photography. “Had she made herself known,” Mark says, cycling through Maier’s images on a computer, “she would be famous.”
Why she didn’t embrace this celebrity is the central question of John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s engaging documentary, and though it’s certainly not the only question you could ask about Maier’s work, it’s a dramatically effective one, transforming what could’ve been a basic introduction into a globe-trotting tale of detection.
The mystery begins with Maloof himself, who is not only the film’s co-director but one of its major characters: he was the auction-goer who, in 2007, accidentally discovered Maier’s work. Weaving together talking heads, Maier’s images, and his own narration, the film’s first half traces Maloof’s growing fascination with the mysterious photographer from inception to vocation. Initially dismissive, Maloof relegated her photographs to his closet, but returning to the work a few years later, he became so obsessed that he began trying to track Maier down. Finding little beyond an obituary, he started a blog and began uploading her work. Online her pictures became a sensation, generating fawning assessments from shutterbugs and newspapers worldwide, and before long Maloof found himself organizing shows of Maier’s work—first at the Chicago Cultural Center, and then, as her popularity grew, around the country.
A major part of that popularity is, of course, her biography, and that’s where the film ventures in its latter half. It’s a welcome turn: Maloof is a competent but colorless proxy, and it’s a bit strange that he chooses to include so much of himself in a production about someone so private, especially considering the wealth of material Maloof has to work with. Maier was a packrat, and the detritus she accumulated (tickets, bills, letters) gives the film visual texture, and offers plenty of leads to track down, which he diligently does.
Prolific yet completely unknown, it turns out Maier—tall, severe, and foppish—spent her adult life as a nanny. Many of her photographs were taken, in fact, with her adolescent charges in tow. Seemingly without family of her own, it’s often these surrogate children who bring her into focus. The portrait of Maier that emerges from Maloof’s chorus of former wards, employers, acquaintances and neighbors is sometimes positive, sometimes very negative. A few happily recall the adventures she took them one, and indeed, a pair of boys she took care of in the fifties paid for her apartment later in life. But one girl, now grown, recalls how Maier force-fed her, and another describes Maier photographing her brother after he was hit by a car. All account for some degree of eccentricity—a fake accent, false names, an unexpected stubbornness—but the film thankfully avoids pathologizing her oddities, painting her instead as a full—if dysfunctional—human. In one of the film’s most moving passages, one family recounts how Maier’s hoarding lost her her job. It wasn’t that she was crazy, says one of the interviewees, but she had gotten “too crazy.”
It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they don’t sanitize her dark moments, or force agreement between their subjects. But the major consensus that does emerge—that Maier was a painstakingly private person—raises questions about the film and Maloof’s overall project. What would Maier think of the kind of publicity she’s now getting? Would she enjoy that her work was found and lauded, or would she be mortified? Maloof himself raises these questions at one point, speaking directly to the camera. But he lets himself off the hook: near the end of the film, he finds a bit of evidence that Maier did make an attempt to sell her work. See, it’s as if he’s saying, she’s not so different from us—underneath it all, she wanted to be exposed, too, even if she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
But perhaps it’s more interesting to consider the possibility that she didn’t want to be. As many other reviewers have observed, Maloof, owner of 90% of her work, has a clear financial interest in making her known, and the film more or less reflects his foregone conclusions. While it doesn’t (spoiler alert!) come to any major insights into her chosen obscurity, it does seem to conclude, as many of its interview subjects do, that her life was sad and lonely because of it.
There’s definitely an element of truth to this: living in isolation and poverty, the end of her story, does not seem particularly joyous. But is it so inconceivable to us now that someone might choose absolute privacy, and be happy with it? Even if she never showed them to anyone, there’s an unmistakable humor and joy in many of her photographs.
There’s also plenty of self-portraiture, including some of the most arresting I’ve ever seen. Some might take this as further evidence that she wouldn’t have spurned publicity: the ultimately shy don’t snap selfies, especially in public. But her self-portraiture is also a kind of satire on our modern sensibility. For all the images we now make—almost none of them as enlivening as hers—what do we know of ourselves? As John Ashbery writes in his 1975 poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the soul has to stay where it is. For all her photographs, what can we truly say of Maier? What can we say of her spirit?
In one self-portrait, Maier is a shadow on the beach covering a horseshoe crab. A living fossil, Maier’s work, like this documentary, might tell us as much about ourselves as it does about her. “I’m sort of a spy,” she responds when one acquaintance asks her what she did. He took her reply as odd, but I take it as slyly accurate: she’s a turncoat for living what is an increasingly unusual life, and even more so for broadcasting brilliant images from it.