Friday, April 11, 2014


Vivian Maier's final years were unpleasant. Paranoid, friendless, and eating out of dumpsters, she'd become one of those characters we occasionally see in our lives: the mysterious old woman on the park bench.  That she may end up being remembered as one of the finest street photographers of the 20th century doesn't make her final days any more or less sad, for as we learn in John Maloof's Finding Vivian Maier, she'd kept her talents a secret. In fact, it was one of many secrets in her life.

You may know the story. Maloof, a local historian who was writing a book about Chicago, happened to bid on a box of random photographs and negatives at a small local auction. After finding some of Maier's old photographs of Chicago street life, he realized he had something special. He posted some of these photos on the Internet, which lead to Maier becoming a sort of Chicago cult figure.

Over time, Maloof hunted down a vast collection of Maier's undeveloped photos (negatives numbering in the thousands), as well as her clothes, shoes, and enough newspaper clippings and odd junk to qualify her as a dangerous hoarder. What he learned was that she had been a nanny for most of her life, living in a series of cluttered attic apartments in the homes where she worked. The nanny's life allowed Maier to roam the streets and neighborhoods in search of subjects.  The children she tended often came with her on these jaunts, even into the rough neighborhoods where Maier liked to shoot. It is from their recollections that we learn about this strange, remarkable woman.

People remember Maier as a tall woman - one woman describes Maier as seven-feet tall, which is how she must have appeared to children - with a loping, Frankensteinish walk, dressed in men's clothing, her trusty Rolleiflex camera dangling around her neck. She spoke with an accent, which some feel was affected (she was born in New York, but spent part of her childhood in France with French relatives). She didn't trust men, and some of the interviewees speculate that Maier may have been molested at some point in her own childhood, so profound was her distaste for men.

Maier sometimes described herself as "sort of a spy." She even went through a phase where she carried a portable tape recorder around to interview people. One funny audio clip has her interviewing random people in supermarkets about the resignation of Richard Nixon, while another has her asking some children "What can a person do to live forever?" I think she was a fun person at this time in her life, with  a dry sense of humor and irony. If she approached me in a supermarket, I'd like to think I would indulge her for a minute.

Maloof is crafty as he doles out the information, leading us along as if solving a detective tale. He doesn't gloss over Maier's dark side, either. She had a growing fascination with murder scenes, and her hoarding and  reclusiveness were not signs of a healthy person. A couple of the kids she looked after in her later years remembered her as mean; one woman describes a horrible scene where Maier lost her temper and started choking her. As one person recounts, "She'd gone beyond eccentric."

Then there are the photos. Maier was brilliant. Her style was a cross between the eerie tableau of Diane Arbus, and the gritty street dramas of Wee Gee. She had a way of stepping into a scene, stealthily snapping her shot, and disappearing. The result, almost 100 percent of the time, was breathtaking. Some of my favorite scenes in Finding Vivian Maier are when other photographers discuss her work. There's an admiration that borders on bewilderment, as if they can't quite figure out how she did it. Horses seem to pose for Maier in mid-strut; homeless men seem noble;  figures in a bustling city seem isolated, nearly dead from loneliness. Maier wandered the streets shooting these scenes, stealing moments, and then locking them away.

Your feelings about Maier may be tested after one story involving a little boy who was struck by a car. Rather than check to see if he was was hurt, Maier began snapping photographs of the downed boy and the frightened onlookers. Irresponsible? Perhaps. Cold-blooded? Maybe. But guess what? The photographs are riveting.

As exciting as it may be to have discovered a new artist, some have wondered if  this documentary is little more than an invasion of a disturbed woman's privacy. Many of the interviewed subjects say Maier would be aghast at the attention being paid to her now. Some, however, feel she would have enjoyed showing her work - Maloof uncovered one of her attempts to have a French printer develop some of her negatives for distribution, which shows Maier was not only proud of her work, but at least briefly entertained their commercial potential. Is this film an invasion of her privacy? Well, no more than when Maier herself used to creep up on people with her camera.

Then again, as much as we learn about Maier in this movie, she remains a mystery. Are there clues in her photos? The one recurring motif I noticed was when she'd place an object on the floor and then shoot it, as her shadow towered over the scene. She also seemed fond of shooting her own reflection in store windows. She imagined herself a ghost, I think, hovering over these neighborhoods, trying to capture something of this world.

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