Finding Vivian Maier begins with a series of brisk cuts: we move from one interview subject to another, and as we do so, each face seems to bear the same expression of rather hopeless bewilderment. Quickly, we discover the source of their perplexity: each has been asked to describe Vivian Maier. To some of the subjects, she was a friend, albeit one who kept her distance; to others, she was simply an employee; for most, however, she is remembered as their peculiar, yet thoroughly compelling, nanny. The early descriptions of Maier – many given by the now grown-up children whom she had once looked after – are lively and, at times, humorously fantastical.
“She dressed like a woman Soviet factory worker from the 1950s,” one says with a chuckle.
“She was over seven foot tall!” another is adamant.
The picture that emerges, far from allowing us to “find” Vivian Maier, seems only to deepen the mystery of the woman. As we string all the little anecdotes together, we discover discrepancies between the accounts: some of the children called their nanny Viv and thought nothing of it; others addressed her as Miss Maier, knowing that even to call her Vivian was an invitation for an earful. As for her surname, we find that she had gone by every variant of Maier imaginable (Maiers, Mayer, Meyer etc.). One woman recalls a particularly curious incident: after striking up a conversation with her at the grocery, the woman inquired of her name. Maier refused to answer, and was eventually prodded into revealing only this – that she was “sort of a spy”.
Still, this outlandish admission did hold a grain of truth. Approximately 150,000 photographic negatives were discovered shortly before Vivian Maier’s death. They revealed her to be one of the most prolific, and arguably one of the most accomplished street photographers of her generation. Thus Finding Vivian Maier concerns itself with two stories: that of Maier herself – the great talent who kept her photography a secret – and that of John Maloof – the man who wanted to discover why.
For the majority of the movie’s duration, one cannot help but marvel at the way Mr Maloof has spun together these two tales. It is that most overused of verdicts when it comes to film criticism, and yet it could not be more appropriate here: Maloof takes us on a journey. From the moment he discovers that first box of photographs at a local auction house, he takes us with him – to New York where Maier was born; to the North Shore of Chicago where Maier worked; across the Atlantic to the little Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur – a place we imagine that Maier, born to a French mother, called home. Maloof does this, he tells us, purely in the name of understanding Vivian Maier. As we watch him organise Vivian’s clothes, her hats, her shoes, her letters, her bus passes, her train cards – all with a painstaking diligence, we may even be heartened to see that the effects of an obsessive artist have passed into the possession of a man who cared as much as she.
Yet the more I dwelled on this film, the more uncomfortable I became. Film, it has always been argued, is an inherently voyeuristic medium. However, it goes without saying that it is one thing to a watch a fictional narrative unfold; it is one thing to watch a documentary created with the approval, perhaps even the active participation, of its subject. It is quite another to delve so deeply, to speculate so extensively, into the life of one who strove to keep her world private. Most inexplicable of all is the final quarter of the film. After indulging in Maier as the mischievous nanny, then Maier as the secret artist, Maloof – who has presumably been sitting on this information all along – introduces a very dark side indeed to Vivian Maier. We then hurtle towards an ending that is both somewhat unsatisfying and almost sensational in the pity it seeks to arouse.
The story of Vivian Maier is full of a natural pathos. This is evident not in the various speculations of all those talking heads, but in the photographs and films Maier left behind. Reflected in these negatives and film rolls (the few we given permission to see, in any case), we see Maier herself. A multifaceted personality, callous and breathtakingly generous in equal measure, with an instinctive eye for the humanity of every day life. Yet fear prevented her from doing what every artist must: sharing this vision with the world.