I sat down with Finding Vivian Maier early this week, a documentary on the life and mystery of the late street photographer. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, the grassroots documentary is a fascinating portrait of an artist whose origin story feels stranger than fiction.
It all began when Maloof, a Chicago real-estate agent, was pursing a passion project and in need of photographs to accompany a local neighbourhood almanac. The year was 2007 and Maloof found himself the proud owner of several abandoned boxes at a local auction.
Maloof's winnings once belonged to a woman named Vivian Maier, a lifelong nanny and spinster who left no property and is survived by no known relatives. She was a recluse, a terminal packrat and a deeply tortured soul. Maier’s hoarding boarded on the compulsive, a fact that manifested exponentially with the advent of time.
As Maloof came under the spell of her work he went digging for the whole truth. His persistence led him to the bulk of her archives that held over 100,000 negatives, hundreds of hours of super-8 footage and audiotapes but also included decades of letters, invoices, ticket stubs, bus schedules, newspaper clippings and a chest full of undeveloped film rolls.
I’ve become besotted with Maier’s photographs. There is a deep humanity in her work, black and white stills full of pleasure, pain and the perverse. You get the feeling that Maier took great pleasure in capturing these portraits of complete strangers. She knew she had a talent for telling stories within the parameters of her square frame. Snapping away at her Rolleiflex helped her feel more than the sum of her parts. It gave her power, a sense of agency that she never enjoyed in life.
It’s remarkable to enjoy a documentary yet come away confused at the protagonist's underlying motives. What compelled her to lead a double life, to abandon the fruits of her passion without the slightest breadcrumb trail.
While we will never know Maier’s underlying motivations to keep her work under lock and key, it doesn’t change the fact that her images speak as loud as the day she captured them on her Rolleiflex. A picture is worth a thousand words and thanks to the dedication and devotion of John Maloof, we will be soaking up her stories for years to come.