Human existence is subjective to the point where quantum physics seems like the only adequate comparison. A phenomenon can be changed just by observing it, which means that we can only guess how it might naturally occur. Each and every person has their own view of the world, one built on just what they have experienced. But just one piece of information can irrevocably rearrange what you think of society, or history… or just one person. And the value we place on what we do with our lives is subjective as well. What is the measure of success? Becoming known, or accomplishing something just for yourself? Finding Vivian Maier will make you think about these things like you never have before.
Vivian Maier was born in 1926 in the U.S., lived most of her youth in France, then returned to America in the 1950s. For four decades, she worked as a nanny for hoity-toity families of Chicago, including Phil Donahue at one point. Most people noted her as eccentric, to say the least. Her manners were non-existent and she had strong hoarding tendencies. Her young wards noticed her compulsive habit of taking pictures everywhere she went. Eventually, Maier settled into a Social Security-supported lifestyle, staying in an apartment bought for her by some of the now-grown children she once watched over. She died in 2009, friendless, having never married or had any children of her own. Her’s was an anonymous existence. Until…
Historical Society member John Maloof bought some boxes from Maier’s estate sale. Inside them he discovered tens of thousands of undeveloped negatives. These were the pictures Maier had been taking for all of those years. Soon, Maloof found that his purchase constituted just a portion of the more than one-hundred thousand photos in Maier’s oeuvre. A life’s work, shared with absolutely no one during that life. But what was more stunning was that as Maloof began to develop the film and look at the photos, he realized that he was looking at the output of a truly skilled photographer. Soon, the name of Vivian Maier began spreading throughout the art world.
Co-directing the documentary with Charlie Siskel, Maloof chronicles his own attempt to find out more about Maier, his fight to have her work recognized as notable by museums and other institutions and the details of Maier’s life that he was able to uncover.
This seems like a tale bound to the 20th century. Could a modern-day Vivian Maier resist the urge to post her photographs on Flickr or some social media platform? Not only is her tale unique, but it’s likely to remain that way. If nothing else, physical means of storing information are disappearing. All of Maier’s photos could fit on a few hard drives, which could go missed so much more easily in a garage sale than boxes full of negatives.
Yet at the same time, Maier might be considered ahead of the curve in respect to cultural norms. She would often get in the faces of random strangers to take a photograph. Many of her subjects display clear disgruntlement towards the camera. She was documenting life with obsessive frequency and a casual disregard for others’ privacy long before it became our social paradigm.
But, of course, Maier did so with far more grace than anyone taking an Instagram selfie. Her photographs, plenty of which are on display in the doc, are stunningly beautiful. She could capture everyday life with an eye like no other. That she caught so many of her subjects off-guard puts them in a physical state unlike any you’ll see in other works. They are neither posing nor unaware, but somewhere in between.
Why was such talent concealed from the world? All of the people Maloof and Siskel interview, Maier’s former acquaintances and charges, make it clear that they had no idea of any of this. To them, she was just the batty, humorless nanny. The movie simultaneously hits a wall and makes a great thematic statement here. It can’t satisfy our desire for answers, because at a certain point there is nothing more we can learn. The only person who can explain Vivian Maier’s motivation was Vivian Maier, and she is gone. We can only reconstruct the truth with what we can scrounge from other observations, which is a great metaphor for documentary filmmaking as a whole.
At the same time, some avenues seem frustratingly unfollowed. In one sequence, some of the people Maier once nannied allege that she seriously abused them. But that subject is not raised again for the rest of the film. Perhaps there really was nothing more to go on, but it feels more like the questions weren’t asked. And it’s all the more egregious given that the movie does not otherwise try to whitewash Maier’s personality.
On the whole, Finding Vivian Maier is one of the first great documentaries of the year. As far as Vivian Maier ever knew, her’s was a private universe, and as far as we can tell, that’s how she wanted it. But now the genie’s bottle is uncorked, and that outside universe has a much different perception of her. And her life and work are well worth discovering.