FRESH DOCUMENTARY TRACES UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER HAILED AS ONE OF THE 20TH CENTURY GREATS
In 2007, John Maloof, an amateur historian, uncovered thousands of negatives at a storage locker auction while researching his neighbourhood in Chicago. The negatives belonged to Vivian Maier who was born in New York in 1929, lived in France during her childhood and then Chicago for most of her life working as a nanny in wealthy suburbs from the 1950s to 1990s. Maloof developed a number of her photos, mostly city street scenes , and posted them on a blog that went viral. The world of photography was stunned and smitten by this unknown talent and soon proclaimed Maier as one of the greatest 20th Century photographers along side Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee. Vivian Maier died before Maloof began to trace who this unknown photographer was. With help from filmmaker Michael Moore, Maloof connected with Charles Siskel and together they made the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, which not only tells the fascinating discovery of Maier’s photographs but also searches for who this person was and why such a mystery.
BeatRoute: Vivian Maier is portrayed as eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual and intensely private. In the documentary, were you able to uncover more and elaborate on her particular views? For example, I gather she was a liberal, an egalitarian, but is their any particular evidence on how she felt about things like race, class structure and religion?
John Maloof: We did the research. There’s about 90 people that knew Vivian. We interviewed about 40-45, and about a dozen in the film that made the cut. There’s a lot of different takes. Stories about how private she was. She had a giant deadlock on her door, she wouldn’t let anybody in. She was very paranoid about people getting too close to her personally. Yes, she was eccentric. She always wore very distinct outfits with big brimmed hats, long overcoats. She had this march that somebody described as a “Nazi march” in the film. She had a lot of different takes on men and society and life. There’s a lot of that in the film.
BR: You interviewed some friends, ex-employers and children of those employers. They seem bewildered, totally surprised that this unassuming woman had such a deep passion for street photography, everyday life and all its personalities. And yet, she remained at a strict arms distance from revealing that in her personal life. Perhaps, that’s the burning question. Why the great division? Or could it be that street photography was her personal life?
JM: That’s what we explore in the film to a large degree — why she never showed anybody her work. We try to ask a lot of questions and leave some of them unanswered of course, because some we’ll never crack. My own personal take is that she was an artist and really didn’t need people to validate the work. The photography is basically the only real form of expression and liberating thing that she had as a person with no family, no love life, no kids or anything else. So if she exposed it to people, it would be subject to criticism or judgment. I think she was too afraid. That’s too bad.
Charles Siskel: She was also the help [a nanny]. She was an employee, she was not a part of the family, even though she lived with some of these people for years and was beloved by the families that she was with. I think she herself felt attached to the families that she was with, but she was still an employee and was seen as a nanny. She would never be seen or allow herself to be seen as an artist, which I think we both feel is sort of her true identity. That was the fundamental secret in her life — she was a brilliant artist who sort of masqueraded as a domestic servant.
BR: She arrived in Chicago in ‘56. I gather you were able to trace some or most the neighbourhoods she lived in and families she worked for. Was that easy?
JM: No. No way. We showed a process in the film. I have what we always refer to as evidence when we’re putting the film together. I acquired a storage locker loaded with her stuff and in that stuff were tons of clues. She had receipts, she had stock certificates, she had cheques from the IRS, she had phone books, notes, she had all kinds of things that pieced together where she was. If there was a stamp on it, an address, a receipt, so you call the store clerk and you find out, “Yeah, she’s been in this store.” You follow along, there are always clues.
BR: A lot of detective work.
JM: Exactly. Throughout the whole film, it’s kind of like the detective work on my end in trying to figure out who this person was and tracing the people that knew her.
BR: Some of these families that Vivian worked for were affluent. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with her in that kind of comfort zone, and certainly part of it to a degree, but then having an obvious affinity in her photography for those lower down on the economic scale.
CS: I think she identified with the poor. She certainly was interested in class divisions. It’s not the only subject matter of her photography, she did many, many different things, but she was certainly interested in exploring some of those themes — class, race and gender — those are all evident in her photos. From talking to the kids and the parents that she was surrounded by, she talked about those things and we also feature in the film that she clipped newspaper articles that were of interest to her and she kept binders and binders filled with those themes in the articles that she kept.
BR: In the ‘50s she travelled around the world by herself with her camera, visiting probably a couple of dozen countries. Did you find that her foreign photos had the same sort of investigative quality seen in her work on the streets of Chicago during that era?
JM: Yeah. I think that she was a photographer that was extremely curious about many, many things. She was born in New York. She was raised as a child in France. America still seemed probably a little bit different in that she never let go of things that we overlook a lot… A lot of those things are in her photos.
CS: She talked about liking cities at one point with one of the families mentioned that to us. Of course, she also loved her childhood home [in France]… Her sensibilities were modernist. She had an eye in her photography that she seemed to be interested in [modernism]. She continued to experiment later in life with different kinds of photography. Her most famous work is the stuff from the ‘50s and early ‘60s but her work continued to evolve, she continued to experiment as an artist and a photographer.
BR: Up to what year did you see evidence she was still shooting?
BR: As she got older, did you think the nature of her work changed?
JM: Yeah. She got into colour in 1970 — 35mm colour work. Over time, she shot a little less over the years and she was shooting a little more abstract. Less classic street photography, more textures, colours, graffiti, social, documentary, political. But she still shot street, it wasn’t just this classic shots of the ‘50s and ‘60s with street themes in Chicago and New York with people with how they dressed backed then… It had a different feel.
BR: Certain critics have recognized her work as masterful. Is there a lot of agreement on that or are there those that feel she’s just another street shooter from the ‘50s in the amateur ranks? Do you think if she would have exhibited her work in the ‘50s and ‘60s it would have been recognized as good, or even great art?
CS: I think there’s a growing consensus that she is a great photographer and is deserving of inclusion in the canon. Certainly the canon of street photography and probably the canon of 20th century photography, more broadly defined.
JM: Definitely. There are a lot of photo critics and people who are sort of authoritative figures, if you want to call it that, on street photography for history books and such that definitely feel that her work deserves to be placed into the canon of photography work… She has been proven to have good enough to fit that canon.
CS: And there are bigger institutions, MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), Tate Modern (Gallery), those sorts of larger cultural institutions that have been slower to come around but that may be changing and as it’s clear from the story, it’s been a grassroots story through and through because people have embraced both the story and the work and haven’t waited to be told by institutions that she is great. The story and the work have gotten out there as much as they have. It is a great story but I don’t think that it would have the interest that it is having and the sustained interest that it has if the work itself wasn’t great. If she had been an OK photographer, it would still be a great story but the fact that the photography is that good is, I think, what ultimately matters. The story, yes, is interesting and fun and fascinating and it makes for, what we think, a great movie, but ultimately, what makes the whole thing matter and worth doing in the first place is the work is actually that good and that she is actually that great an artist.
Finding Vivian Maier screens Thursday, Nov. 21, 7 p.m. at the Globe Cinema as part of CUFF.Docs. Watch the trailer here.
By B. Simm