Finding Vivian Maier
Now playing

Several years ago in Chicago, John Maloof—a scavenger of storage units, forager of flea markets and troller of auctions—bid $380 on Bin No. 39. It contained hundreds of negatives shot by then-unknown street photographer Vivian Maier, an intensely private eccentric who earned a living as a nanny.

More sleuth work led Maloof, who, with Charlie Siskel, directed this film, to a storage locker owned by one of Maier’s former charges. There he found 100,000 negatives, 2,000 rolls of undeveloped black-and-white film and 700 rolls of color. He also found teeth, hats, papers, coats, blouses, uncashed income tax checks, receipts: the detritus that, in total, makes up a life.

Now Maier, once relegated to obscurity, is among the most-sought after artists in American photography.

Maloof’s documentary Finding Vivian Maier showcases her work—much of it stunning, and, to be expected, some of it in need of an editor—but also dips into her mystery. She died in 2009 at age 83, so she cannot answer the many questions we have: Who were you? Why were you estranged from your family? What motivated you? What were your ambitions and hopes for your work?

Maloof can’t answer these questions either, nor can the people he interviews: a long-lost cousin, children who remember Maier as their nanny, even talk show host Phil Donahue, who hired her to care for his four sons.

Pictures tell us not only about their subjects; they also inform us about the photographer. So the best way to assess Maier is through her work, both photos and the 8mm and 16mm films she made. Her prolific output indicates a woman infinitely curious about the world—someone for whom the most quotidian occurrences contained meaning.

She seems to have been most comfortable with children, who confront her camera with honesty and a lack of pretense. Yet she could be unflinching in her shots of accident victims, and those photos betray a cool emotional detachment. One of the children she cared for recalls an incident in which he had been hit by a car (he wasn’t badly injured), and Maier appeared—with her camera, shooting photos of the scene.

Maier, who is portrayed in the film as severe, at least with her fellow adults, nonetheless had an appreciation for humor and the absurd. Her instinct drew her to things and people that were broken; her eye sought out creative juxtapositions of form and content. And her reflexes enabled her to capture them.

“In her is a quality of human understanding and warmth,” says acclaimed street photographer Joel Meyerowitz.

“She had a great eye, a great sense of framing, humor and tragedy,” adds Mary Ellen Mark, famous for her photojournalism and portraiture. “A sense of life and environment. She had it all.”

Other journalists have criticized the documentary for invading Meier’s privacy. She was, by all accounts, a very private person, and we cannot know her wishes about how her work should be publicized, if at all.

However, she spent her entire adulthood intruding in the privacy of others, albeit in public spaces. That’s what street photographers do; they are legal voyeurs. Maier even used a Rolleiflex, a medium-format camera. Instead of holding the camera to the eye, the photographer looks down into the viewfinder to focus on and shoot subjects—who likely don’t know that their picture is being taken. Now the lens has been turned on her.

My issue with the film was that it seemed at times that the interviewees—and, to an extent, Maloof—were poking fun at Maier’s eccentricities, her fashion sense (she preferred men’s shirts because they were better-tailored than women’s; I agree), her behavioral tics.

She was an unmarried nonconformist—a “spinster,” someone calls her, using an antiquated and offensive word—who traveled the world alone. She did this in the mid-20th century, when women were expected to hew to narrow gender roles and to sacrifice their own ambitions for a husband and children.

A man who led Maier’s life would have been lauded as a sophisticated jet-setter, an artist in search of his muse. Instead, Maier is portrayed as damaged.

That said, the documentary is largely enjoyable—Maier’s photographs are brilliant and the story is intriguing. But in effect, we get a filmic version of a Polaroid picture before it’s fully developed. Instead of thinking we can solve the mystery through speculation, perhaps we should just let the mystery be.