There is something brilliantly magnetic and potent about seeing photographic stills on the cinema screen. For those brief few moments, time seems to stand still as we take in the details of the scene – almost, perhaps, more powerful than examining a photograph in real life. The new documentary Finding Vivian Maier is an excellent testament to the alluring power of the still image. Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel hone their lens in on the elusive Vivian Maier, a New York nanny in the 60’s and 70’s who left a hidden world of photographs behind, only to be unearthed recently.
Co-director Maloof was the lucky recipient of those photographs. An avid antique lot goer, he chanced upon an unidentified trunk of negatives and duly purchased them, only to find that this lot was not so ordinary. Meticulously scouring through the negatives, he discovered images of great beauty; monochrome street photography that captured life in all its variety. The photographer had an acute eye for composition, a sense of playfulness and an ability to capture their subjects vivacity. The images feel at once timeless and completely alive. Ladies of leisure are juxtaposed against homeless cripples stranded on the pavements, children battling against their mothers.
But what about the person behind the camera? Maloof discovers someone clearly set apart from the art world, a woman who renounced attention and fame for the freedom that anonymity offers. Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for a number of different well-to-do families around New York and Chicago. Through a series of talking heads we learn about the mothers of those families and their now grown up offspring. They tell a story of an intensely private, eccentric person who would take her camera almost everywhere. That she took jaw dropping photos is a huge surprise to them. While not really the focus of the film, it is quite incredible how people can be so close to someone and not really know them at all.
While the photos interspersed throughout the documentary are indeed striking, Maier is no less of an interesting subject. That she became a nanny makes complete sense; an occupation where you are observing, perhaps even intruding, on other people’s lives while retaining a distance, an occupation that allowed discretion and encouraged the freedom to go outside, which Maier clearly thrived on. For much of the film, Maier comes across as fairly harmless, an extroverted introvert finding the world through her camera lens. However, the documentary takes a darker turn when there are hints of Maier’s darker, more sadistic side. What we are left is an impression of a distinctly complex character, who doesn’t conform to any easy characterisation.
There are a few minor flaws in the film; the restless, sub- Glass score is overbearing and typical of some of the brasher, less refined US documentaries. Maloof has also come in for criticism in some parts, his eager, nerdy presence on screen irking some viewers who feel he detracts from the focus on Maier. Personally, I found Maloof’s story made the film richer as a whole as it mirrored the audiences excitement at the discovery. There is also a danger of the film becoming a little too dry and worthy, painting Maier as an important artist. One question does arise from the documentary: what would Vivian herself, who was so keen to hide herself away, make of a film that exposed her to the whole world? And does it matter?
I’m glad to have seen the film and come to know both Maier and her photographs, even if we will never know the full story. There is a perhaps an enjoyable romance in a great artist never revealing their gifts, but in this case, romance can go to hell.