Review

“Finding Vivian Maier”

“Finding Vivian Maier” is a documentary film, from 2013, shown at festivals around the world – from Toronto and Berlin to Miami and Rio de Janeiro – presenting the unbelievable, but true story of Vivian Maier’s life, an exceptionally gifted and very mysterious woman who hid her great talent from the world. She worked all her life as a modest nanny, taking care of wealthy families’ children. Nobody paid attention to the fact that every day, in every free moment, she took hundreds of photos, which she never showed to anyone, and most of them were never even developed. Nobody knew about her passion in life, thanks to which she became known all over the world for. A few years ago, right after Maier’s death, the container in which she had kept all her works was accidentally discovered. It contained over 100,000 negatives containing pictures that no one had ever seen before, and which soon caused a worldwide sensation. Overnight, Maier was recognised as one of the most important female artists of the 20th century, and galleries all around the world wanted to showcase her works. Who was the woman who did not reveal her passion to anyone? Was she aware of her talent? What secret was she hiding?

The whole story started when John Maloof, the director and scriptwriter of the film attended an auction where he saw a box full of negatives for less than $400. He initially attended with the intention of buying old photographs of the city. Inside the box were Maier’s photos where she captured the smiles of strangers, curious glances of children, fear in the eyes of adults, ordinary situations and grotesque expressions. 

After discovering photos, John began a frantic search: who was the cinematographer? He was trying to find information about the mysterious photographer whose photos fascinated him. At the same time, he was looking for someone who would be interested in promoting them but his search was unsuccessful at the beginning. He uploaded her photos to a blog – which was a great success. The response from the Internet was positive and the photos became increasingly popular and received high praise. He discovered that the photos were taken by Vivian Maier, but he was surprised that there was no trace of her anywhere online. So he started to look for other information regarding her. He began searching for individual documents and papers and ended up finding a telephone number, which he checked by adding various prefixes to it. Miraculously, he bumped into people who knew Vivian Maier. It turned out that the outstanding photographer he was looking for was a nanny.

Some of her photos resemble disturbing portraits of Diane Arbus and others share similarities with Stanley Kubrick who photographed New York street life for ‘Look Magazine’ in the 1940s. Maier’s photos prove that she had a sense of space, light and architecture. She was sensitive to human drama; she saw the absurdities of life and had a cracking sense of humour. But if she was so talented why is her name not mentioned alongside other great photographers? This mystery prompted Maloof to start documenting in further detail about her and quickly began his own personal investigation. Maloof is not a professional documentary filmmaker, but rather a man who merely discovered Vivian’s work and decided to make a film about her life and photographs.

Maloof tells this story in front of the documentary filmmaker’s camera. He shows her personal belongings in front of the camera: piles of various papers and documents including bills, hundreds of brooches, blouses and old hats. Her style and the photos that she made indicated that Maier was a person living around the 1920s or 1930s: but actually, she died in 2009 and lived her whole life in her mind with an imaginary identity and wore strange, anachronistic clothes – similar to Mary Poppins. She had multiple versions of her name, a false French accent, and her employers did not know that she took photos or that she had a fondness for collecting things in general and that she kept piles of newspapers in her room with rather macabre headlines.

John Maloof managed to collect the memories of her employers, those under her care and a few friends throughout the film. All of them were shocked by the fact that a strange woman with crooked hair and who took care of children and was both wonderful and terrifying at the same time – took photos. Experts who look at Maier’s photos in the video are also perplexed. All aspects of the photos are engaging and commendable. You can see a genuine obsession with images, fascination with the street, people and architecture.

Vivian had an ability to frame an extraordinary sense of humour with a subtle tenderness. But at the same time, we can see her cruel side; she wasn’t afraid to push her camera straight into people’s faces who were wronged by life, or instead of helping a boy who is hit by a car – she decided to just take pictures of him and his despair instead, a rather sadistic approach to the situation. As it turns out, she took her proteges with her for photographic escapades, who were often the perfect object. However, as often as they mention in the film, they were horrified by how their really strange nanny crosses other people’s boundaries most often in very dangerous and rough neighbourhoods and areas. We get to know them already as adults – some in love with their nanny enough to fund her a flat at their old age, others considering her a dangerous psychotic madwoman. Either way everyone is delighted with her photos. Because it’s hard not to fall in love with them, just as it’s hard not to be fascinated by this history. “Finding Vivian Maier” is an amazing story, not only for fans of her photography.

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