In 2007, Jeff Maloof bid on a box of negatives that he never ended up using for a book on his Chicago neighborhood. Two years later, he developed the shoved-away negatives out of pure curiosity and discovered a woman named Vivian Maier, who turned out to be an extremely talented street photographer. Ever since then, Maloof has been digging into the photographer’s past, collecting the rest of her 150,000-and-more photos and trying to figure out how her story impacts her work. “Finding Vivian Maier,” a documentary that Maloof co-directed with Charlie Siskel, is the product of these findings.
“Finding Vivian Maier” reveals much of Maloof’s discovery about the photographer — the places she had been to, the stunning photographs she had taken and what the people who she encountered during her lifetime thought about her — but none of the information reveals much about Vivian as a person.
Tall, strange and dressed in men’s clothing with a big hat, Vivian was born in New York City in 1926 but spent most of her childhood in France. She returned to America as an adult and toiled in Chicago as a nanny for many years, taking an enormous amount of photographs with her modest Kodak Brownie box camera. Toward the end of her life, several of the children she once took care of supported her living in Rogers Park on the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan. She lived alone, remained unmarried and died in 2009.
Following Maloof’s steps, we trace Vivian’s roots to her childhood home in France — only to find out that she maintained little contact with her family. Besides Maloof’s journeys and discoveries, the documentary mainly consists of interviews with Vivian’s previous employers and the children she cared for, who are now grown adults. Some remember Vivian as a loving nanny with some eccentric habits, while others think of her with fear. The consensus from all of the testimonies seems to uphold the mystery that defines Vivian Maier. She was extremely secretive, reclusive and even changed her name frequently to prevent people from contacting her.
One of her previous employers reveals that Vivian left behind not only a legacy in the world of photography but also an unusual collection of every document, receipt and newspaper she had. As we hear more about the peculiar side of Vivian, her eccentricity quickly becomes mental illness. A former child that Vivian looked after points out that she always had a “dark side,” which is more or less evident in her photographs.
Vivian’s photography often captures the incongruous and disturbing side of humanity. The works reflect the artist’s exceptionally watchful eye, which was only drawn to unappealing situations — the follies and tragedies of humanity. Vivian seems to have had a penchant for the poor since the subjects in her photos are often impoverished or suffering.
The elephant in the room is pinpointed by Maloof from the start of the documentary: Vivian Maier was obviously a talented and prolific photographer, but why did she create a private bohemia in her attic and make no attempt to showcase her works to the world? What is the point of taking so many beautiful photos if no one appreciates and applauds her efforts? The film does not offer any answers to these questions. Instead, Maloof’s obsessive quest into Vivian’s past provokes a debate: Would the secretive and hermitic artist support Maloof’s ambition to announce her work to the world?
Although Vivian Maier remains an enigmatic figure, her talent and photography are well known nowadays, thanks to Maloof. While many think Vivian — given her secretive nature — would have opposed this project had she been alive, Maloof frankly admits his obsession with the artist and his inability to stop digging into her past. The documentary closes by reaffirming Vivian Maier as a sublime artist and her emerging fame as one of the most talented street photographers of the 20th century, finally bringing her into the spotlight she had so long avoided.