Imagine finding a huge stash of undeveloped photo negatives with very mysterious origins. What would you do? In Finding Vivian Maier (2013), director John Maloof tells of how he discovered thousands of negatives shot by the secretive hoarder Vivian Maier – a nanny, a self-proclaimed spy, and all-around intriguing personality – and documents the process of finding out who she is, where she came from, and her final days. The film meticulously recounts her work as a nanny with various families, who tell of her strange mannerisms and habits. What we are shown is that Maier was somewhat of a mystery to everyone – however, her family origins and personal psychology can be read through her photos, which she took obsessively and ranged from subjects such as the homeless, to the contents of rubbish bins, to humorous city life situations, and to herself.
There’s something so intriguing about reclusive artists, about people who shut themselves away from others in order to hone their craft or maintain their obsession with their craft. Vivian Maier is a strange case, as we are told different stories about her from different people – some families that she worked with recount her as a sociable person, and some tell of her antisocial tendencies and abusive behaviours towards children. It can be confusing and contradictory, but Vivian Maier is an enigma, and throughout the film we learn almost as much as we can learn about such a mysterious person in a posthumous capacity. Maier passed away just before John Maloof purchased a large amount of her photo negatives and began his search for the photographer. Even so, Finding Vivian Maier tries to be as comprehensive as possible when attempting to convey a sense of what this person was like, and largely succeeds in doing so. We learn of her many contradictions, but her photography remains as a means of communicating her internal monologue and very personal interactions with the external world.
Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary. It communicates its story through the photos and videos shot by Maier, interspersed with interviews with the director, the families who she used to nanny for, and art professionals who are able to speak to the significance and importance of her works. Some of the subjects are slightly frustrating to watch in terms of the personality that they show to the camera; some can be quite abrasive and negative towards the director and his intention to showcase Maier’s photographs without having her permission to do so. But each subject is able to give their own perspective on this talented mystery women, and thus are able to assist both the viewer and the director in their respective quests to understand her.
It’s interesting that the film raises the question of whether such a private person, who was reluctant to share her eccentricities and passions with even her close friends, would want to have her work displayed for the entire world to see. The director seems to ponder this question genuinely for a time, and actually feel bad for sharing her photography with the world, however then brushes this off after some evidence is found that Maier did want other people to see her work. The film doesn’t approach the question of exactly how much the director is profiting from displaying Maier’s work and selling her prints. It may just be a matter of ‘finders keepers losers weepers’, considering that Maier has no known living family. This is the one main issue that made me slightly uncomfortable about this film.
Finding Vivian Maier is a truly intriguing portrait of a talented woman, and of the search for and discovery of information regarding a secretive and mysterious creative person. Vivian Maier was an extremely talented artist, but she was also very flawed, and Finding Vivian Maier successfully maintains the delicate balance between the creative and marketable artist and the complex, divisive person in such a watchable and engrossing way. This is a highly interesting documentary, and one that does a good job of selling the photography to you as well.
Watch the trailer here.
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