Film Corner: Finding Vivian Maier

By Diana Miller

I’m admittedly a little late to this party – Finding Vivian Maier has been out so long that it’s sure to be on Netflix any minute now. But it’s better to discover a gem late than never, isn’t it?

Film poster for Finding Vivian Maier

Film poster for Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier starts with an improbable story. Chicago resident John Maloof buys a few storage containers’ worth of undeveloped film at an auction, hoping to find photographs to illustrate a historical book about Chicago that he’s writing. He inadvertently discovers a supremely talented and prolific street photographer, and sets out to discover everything he can about this anonymous creative genius.

This is the premise of Finding Vivian Maier; the documentary then follows Maloof through months of research, as he sets out to find the photographer behind these breathtaking pictures. As the audience watches Maloof slowly pieces together the story of Vivian Maier: an intensely guarded nanny of mysterious origins who somehow, without any formal training, took photographs that rival those of the most celebrated street photographers. Maier never married or had children, and passed away shortly before Maloof purchased her remaining work.

The film is more of a character sketch than a sociological analysis—and, Maier is certainly a character worth sketching. We learn about her through interviews with her neighbours, acquaintances (anyone who’s seen the film will hesitate to say friends), former employers, and charges. She is wholly devoted to the art of photography. It’s clear that she works as a nanny to pay the bills; she resents the time that her job takes away from her first love, and frequently takes the children she cares for on “nature walks” that are really just an excuse for her to take pictures. The people who knew Maier describe her as eccentric to the point of being ornery and reclusive.

Even though the film’s directors don’t really engage in sociological analysis, the film provides rich well of sociological material. As a case study of a fairly atypical woman artist, Maier’s life history clearly illuminates many of the challenges that are common to creative women.  Finding Vivian Maier shows us what happens when a woman behaves like a stereotypically tortured and temperamental creative genius. Many of her traits—an all-consuming devotion to art, eccentricity, reclusivity—are normal for artists. But, they are far more acceptable in men than in women.

Most notable is that before Maloof’s serendipitous purchase, no one preserved Maier’s legacy—not her employers, her family, or her charges. Gladys and Kurt Lang’s famous 1990 article asks why some artists’ reputations, and not others’, survive. One of the factors they highlight is that men are more likely than women to have their legacies memorialized because their wives and daughters do significant preservationist work, donating their body of work to museums and organizing retrospective shows. Maier, like most women artists, had no one to do this preservationist work.

Maier’s story, then, is a fascinating deviant case that prompts many ‘what if’ questions. What would happen if more creative women felt free to be as tortured and temperamental as many men artists? What would happen to women’s artistic legacies if more people were willing to document and preserve them? What would have happened to Maier’s legacy if Maloof hadn’t bid on those storage bins? Or if he had lacked the cultural knowledge and resources to recognize the value of her photographs? Or, if he had lacked the social, cultural, and financial resources to create a documentary, publish a book, and mount multiple artistic exhibitions to bring her story to light?

Maier’s body of work is now getting the recognition that it and she deserve, in part thanks to this film. The real value of this film, however, isn’t in what it can teach us about its subject. The value is in the questions this film raises about how many other Vivian Maiers, past and present, are still waiting for someone to find their storage bins.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.