VIFF 2013: Finding Vivian Maier
In 2007 John Maloof bought a box of negatives at an auction for just under $400. He thought he might use some images for a history project but the shots didn't work out. When he took a closer look, he felt that the work was truly good and was surprised to find no information on the photographer. Vivian Maier seemed to have no history.
Maloof set out to uncover the story behind the artist and this is the journey documented in the film, Finding Vivian Maier. The true story is strange and somewhat tragic. After tracking down the rest of the auction lots, Maloof tries to contact anyone who might have known the photographer. He finally reaches one such person by telephone; they knew Maier because she was their childhood nanny. Why did a photographer of massive talent live a quiet life as a nanny? Maloof wonders. Those who knew her describe her as odd, eccentric, private. None knew she was an artist even though she was seldom without a camera and took photos often, even at the scene when one child was hit by a car. Maloof draws a sensitive portrait even when Maier's eccentricities become more disturbing. Maier was paranoid, could be mean and abusive to her young charges and, by her later years, was certainly suffering from mental illness.
Maloof's attempts to have Maier's work accepted by the art world meet with resistance. While audiences love her street photography and many galleries display it, the institutional gatekeepers are not keen to add a new vision to the canon. But it is almost as obvious as it can be, seeing hundreds of Maier's shots, that she had an amazing eye and that her work is insightful and moving. Maloof found over a hundred thousand negatives and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. He also found boxes and boxes of stuff; Maier was a hoarder. No one knew about her work and that's how she wanted it. Those who knew her say she would not have wanted attention and this does pose a problem for Maloof, who doesn't want to betray Vivian. But in the end he believes her work should be seen and he champions her as a great artist.
This is an extraordinary story and it is well-documented in the film. It is a fascinating look into one psyche and an opportunity to new the work of an undiscovered artist.