Give or take, dying is probably the best career move an artist can make. It can turn celebrities from drunken punchlines into tortured saints, (ask Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain, just don’t expect a quick response), cause sales to skyrocket and an almost immediate critical reappraisal for the messianic. But what if you’re not a well known figure? How could death bring you into the limelight when there isn’t a living soul who even knows you’re an artist?
In Chicago circa 2007, a young historian named John Maloof, searching for cheap pictures of the Illinois capital in the 20th Century, purchased a box full of negatives for $330 at auction, only knowing that the photographer was named Vivian Maier. On examining the photos he discovered them to be street photography of stunning quality. From tramps to high fashion ladies, the photographer had captured passerbys with an evocative eye and fantastic technique. Assuming he had stumbled into part of the collection of a wellknown artist or journalist, Maloof was surprised that a Google of Vivian Maier turned up no results. He slowly began stepping up his search efforts in a way that might charitably be described as ‘driven’ or more realistically as ‘obsessive’ but still turned up nothing until the obituary of a ‘Vivian Maier’ turned up in 2009. Rather than a famed photographer or artist, she’d lived her life as a nanny. Getting in touch with some of her old charges Maloof was able to piece together a good 90% of her surviving negatives (approximately 150,000) but substantially less of her life story.
As a documentary Finding Vivian Maier manages to avoid being hamstrung by this potentially ruinous lack of biographical information, whilst there are plenty of interviews with her grown up charges and their parents, Meier is quickly revealed to be an almost pathologically private person. Many of the pictures that she took with the Rolliflex camera, which she wore perpetually around her neck, she never even bothered to develop and there was certainly never any real attempt made at sharing or publishing her photos. With exactly one friend and a family seemingly split apart by some indiscernible shadow, viewers may find their questions multiplying rather than answered. In addition the interviews quietly eradicate the ‘Mary Poppins with a camera’ aspect of the story with mentions of occasional physical abuse directed at the children in her care and tendency toward obsessive hoarding.
The film is fascinating, and the photography shown is truly magnificent, but sometimes the film can feel as much of a self promotional exercise for Maloof as it does a revealing portrait of a hidden artist. But other than this occasionally unsavoury impression (alongside a teeth grindingly Hollywood soundtrack that attempts to emotionally lead you by the nose) Finding Vivian Maier is an intriguing exploration of an artist who could have been one of the central pillars of her style but chose total obscurity instead. The only question left to ponder is whether by digging up her life and her art now, we are doing precisely what she would hate. Finding Vivian Maier is available on DVD.