FINDING VIVIAN MAIER is a fascinating documentary about the discovery of the stunning photography of an almost invisible nanny, Vivian Maier.
For years she nannied for a number of (reasonably wealthy) families. Her wards apparently loved her; their parents trusted her -this French-sounding, eccentric, deeply private woman. What none of them were aware of was that she was a skilled, obsessive observer and photographer of New York street life. She’d lead her young wards all over the city – to them, journeys of fantasy well away from the milieu of their class – in search of the faces, the moments, the light that have made her, posthumously, a deservedly lauded, master photographer.
Her photos – the faces, the casual gestures, the ironic compositions, the extraordinary light- all manage to suggest fleeting moments of honest emotion, as if she were able to still flickers of thought and capture the unexpected intimacy between the observer and the observed
But who was this woman? What drove this hidden passion?
The story begins when John Maloof, the director, in search of interesting vintage photos for a project he was working on, bought blind, a box of negatives. They weren’t quite what he was looking for. Even so, he could recognize that these weren’t the typical family snaps; he scanned some of them and uploaded them onto a blog. The response was overwhelming. Here was art in search of an artist.
So just who was the photographer? All he had were the images, vignettes of frozen lives and passions, but no information about their creator. His pursuit eventually lead him to the mother-lode of material, all stuffed into a storage locker. There, he untombed dozens of boxes, packing crates, suitcases, plastic containers, bags, back-packs… anything that could hold “stuff”. Amongst this “stuff” – the memorabilia of a life – he found thousands of negatives, undeveloped rolls of 35mm and 18mm (movie) film (over 100,000 of them) along with her clothes, sacks of receipts, uncashed tax refund checks, notes, memos, and assorted junk.
Here in a sense was Vivian Maier, a woman who seemed to want to hold on to the past, to capture on film or via hundreds of sundry objects, the very flow of time. The uncovered objects and film reveal to us what she looked like – tall, stately, with a certain European elegance and dressed in a style that leant an air of outsider mystery. But who really was this reluctant artist?
Maloof ends his documentary with an image that summarizes its journey: we see, in a dark-room, a photographic sheet in its well of developing fluid slowly revealing its image. So too is Vivian Maier slowly revealed. Sort of.
We meet many of her wards – now adults- as well as sundry others with whom she interacted. They were, it seems, from their contradictory and superficial recall, equally nonplussed as to who she really was, where she came from, why she remained in this relatively lowly profession all her life; and, to some of her employers, what were in those ever accumulating boxes (which says much of big city anomie I guess).
Indeed, her name itself was as much a chameleon as she was: She was Vivian Maier, Meyer, Mayer, sometimes even V. Smith. She spoke with a French accent, but one professional scholar of speech patterns reveals that it was a fake. No one really knew her. It was as if she was no more real than the vague memory of her wards or subjects. Only now, long dead, Maloof tries to crystallize these memories to piece together some sort of rounded picture of the reluctant artist. She remains elusive – more as an idea than a real person.
So who is the reality behind the idea?
We’ll never know. We may never ‘find’ Vivian Maier, but through her photography, what Maloof did find is a way one person looked out on the world; not simply what she saw, but how she saw it.
And that’s quite a find
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