In 2007, a trove of more than 100,000 photographic negatives was discovered at a Chicago estate auction. They had been taken over the course of half a century by a woman named Vivian Maier. Maier, who died in 2009, had supported herself as a nanny in New York and Chicago. What made the story more than just a passing urban oddity was that Maier was extremely talented. Her unposed street photography was worthy of comparison with the work of such contemporaries as Helen Levitt and Lisette Model. Her work has since been widely shown. One exhibition was at Brandeis University last fall.
John Maloof, who made the initial discovery, has now made a documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” He wrote and directed it with Charlie Siskel. Siskel is the nephew of the late Gene Siskel, of Siskel and Ebert fame.
This is an amazing tale, and Maloof has labored mightily to flesh it out. He’s almost as odd as Maier was. “I’m kind of compulsive with stuff,” he says at one point. He sure is. A little bit of him goes a long way, and his screen presence pretty much dominates the first third of the documentary.
Maloof’s obsessiveness has its virtues. He’s tracked down many of the children Maier cared for and some of their parents. One of those parents was a single dad named Phil Donahue. The former daytime TV host recalls watching Maier sticking her Rolleiflex into a trash can to take a picture. “I thought, ‘Well, they laughed at Picasso,’ ” he says.
Maloof has also tracked down distant relations of Maier’s in France, as well as home movies and audiotapes she made. It’s a bit spooky hearing her voice. Maier sounds slightly severe and quite imperturbable. Warm and cuddly she was not, as various anecdotes from the grown-up children make plain.
The portrait that emerges is of someone impressively independent, implacably solitary, and increasingly strange. A hoarder, she filled top to bottom the various attic and garage apartments she lived in. “She had so many boxes,” marvels one of her former charges.
Arresting as Maier’s personality is, it’s her art that matters. The film shows many of her photographs. She had a great eye for street oddity, on-the-fly compositions, and self-portraits (often partially obscured or in shadow). Both Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark have interesting things to say about their fellow photographer’s work.
The observations of the grown-up children don’t offer as much. All honor to Maloof’s legwork, but there are far too many talking heads — and, frankly, their comments aren’t all that insightful. Maier’s art speaks for itself. Her personality, for all the prodigies Maloof has done, remains fundamentally elusive. What might have offered further illumination would be more time spent on class and status. Clearly, this was a person of great ability and intelligence — far more so than was the case with many of the families she worked for. There’s a whole level of sociological tension here that the documentary effectively ignores. What it doesn’t ignore are various bits of slickness — sped-up footage, an overbearing score — to try to jazz up a story that needs no trickeration.
The chief problem is the documentary’s misapprehension of the artistic personality. Again and again the film puzzles over Maier’s never having shown her photographs. “What’s the point of taking it if no one sees it?” asks a baffled talking head. Well, the point is that the camera was how Maier chose to relate to the world. It was a window through which she could see without being seen — or else seen only as she wished. She saw the compositions in her viewfinder. She knew how good they were. That she wouldn’t have wanted more than that satisfaction is unusual, certainly, but far from inexplicable. It’s why painters can sell their canvases and authors not reread what they’ve written. It’s the doing that matters. The rest is all commentary.
“I’m sort of a spy,” Maier remarked once. Another time she told one of the children she cared for “I’m the mystery woman.” We hear her saying it, in fact, on tape. It’s like getting to hear Charles Foster Kane say, “Sure, I used to go sledding.” Forget Rosebud. Just look at the photographs.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.