Imagine randomly coming across a literal trove of work and artefacts once owned by an individual as far removed from the public eye as possible. How could you verify work of such magnitude, brilliance and mystery? These are the issues explored in the joint filmmaking debut from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), a documentary that simultaneously explores, commemorates and celebrates the late titular figure whose photography earned her a posthumous reputation as one of the most accomplished living street photographers. Maier’s extensive body of work came to light when, in 2007, Maloof happened upon numerous boxes containing thousands of negatives in an auction house.
Tallying together some 100,000 photographs, Maloof set about researching the enigmatic Maier, scanning and posting her work online on photography-oriented sites like Flickr, to instant fanfare, and racking up considerable interest from photography enthusiasts and professionals alike. However, what ultimately proved more difficult was convincing established institutions such as MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) to take notice and aid in what would have had to be a large-scale archiving job. This prompted Maloof to look further afield, to dig deeper into the scarcely identified life and back story of Maier and piece together parts of what he eventually found to be a puzzle of an extremely elusive, endlessly mysterious and intensely private individual who apparently had no immediate family.
The documentary is essentially a two-tiered approach; the first half details Maloof’s extraordinary find and ensuing – but eventually winnable – battle to have Maier’s photography and mix of 8mm and 60mm films recognised and evaluated, which makes for stimulating and at times heart-warming viewing. This is countered by a darker second act that deals with the more discernible facts of Maier’s life, most significantly her role as a nanny and live-in governess for various families, the many names and guises she went under, her secretive, eccentric and volatile nature that, as the many talking head’s surmise, was entrenched in mental illness. These revealing facts offer something of a timeline of Maier’s reclusive later life where she continued to take photographs that, as described by one of her employers, “revealed the folly of humanity”, which she continued to do until her death in 2009.
Interspersed with a handpicked selection of some of Maier’s finest, most beguiling images, which capture the hidden splendour of the everyday, Maloof and Siskel’s documentary is an evocative and at times poignant portrait of a clandestine figure, who here is retrospectively labelled “the journalist of the era”. Though the question on everyone’s lips of why Maier never exhibited or made public her catalogue of imagery is, of course, unanswered, what we get are allusions and theories from fellow photographers and distant relatives, who believe that such an understated woman had nary a level of professional status to aspire to. Although Maier may not have welcomed this newfound, globally recognised appreciation herself, Maloof and Siskel have done a worthwhile job of at least putting her on the map.