DVD Review: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’

Vivian Maier was a ghost, a recluse, an enigma, a mystery, and quite possibly one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century. And, in truth, despite the intentions of John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, she is no closer to being found than she ever was. Maloof and Siskel’s documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013) seeks to illuminate the discovery of 150,000 photographs of astonishing quality, all taken by a painfully private New York nanny – most of which were never even developed. John Maloof chanced upon this extraordinary collection when he discovered an intriguing box of negatives whilst researching a book on the history of Chicago.

What he found was the work of a street photographer clearly to be compared with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus, the kind of discovery of which dreams are made. However, Maloof and Siskel’s film is not an attempt to explore or critique Maier’s beautifully poised photographs, but rather to unravel the mystery behind Vivian herself. The series of interviews with the families for which she nannied frustratingly lead nowhere, and, aside from frenzied debate about her accent, the mystery rather runs out of steam after a trip to France to visit her mother’s hometown, Saint Julien. Finding Vivian Maier can be described as a difficult watch, saddled with a central moral conundrum that is never quite solved – and never will be – why did she take these pictures, and did she ever want anyone to see them?

The argument that Maier carefully stored and didn’t destroy the negatives so she could later exhibit them doesn’t carry water – as we find out from cases full of carefully stored receipts and piles of newspapers that she didn’t destroy anything. Maloof himself can be a little slippery, omitting the fact the boxes were only up for sale because Vivian could no longer afford to store them, and glossing over the not insubstantial detail that she was alive when he made his first discovery in 2007. Perhaps the most telling moment in the film comes when Maloof finds himself frustrated by the uncooperative behaviour of “the art establishment” in his efforts to bring Maier’s work to a wider audience – he went straight to MoMA in New York, and was unsurprisingly told his portfolio of completely unheralded work by an unknown artist couldn’t be exhibited immediately – and launches into a passionate defence of his decision to sell prints of her work to further her legacy. This is ill-judged whichever way you look at it, and certainly in reflection with the tales of awful poverty Vivian endured in the final 13 years of her life.

None of which is to say that this film is not utterly gripping – it just doesn’t really go anywhere, as a detective piece, or as a reflection of the greatness of Vivian Maier’s work. Glimpses of the almost uniformly wonderful photography are frustratingly fleeting – but, as it turns out, the film isn’t really about Vivian Maier at all. While Maloof’s desire to expose Maier’s work is admirable, he comes across as the worst kind of collector. He has to have everything. He casually mentions tracking down all known instances of her work: “I found all the other people who bought boxes and I bought their boxes.” And this, really, is the story of Finding Vivian Maier – the very 21st century tale of the obsessive collector.

Michael Douglas Hunter