Turning The Camera On A Hidden Shutterbug

A new documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, investigates the life and art of the professional nanny whose stunning photography was discovered only after her death in 2007. (The film’s co-director, John Maloof, stumbled upon Maier’s work when he purchased a box of negatives at a Chicago auction for $380.) In a review of the film, Erin Fuchs focuses on revelations of Maier’s dark side:

She was an odd woman. Maier always had a Rolleiflex camera around her neck and dragged her charges around Chicago’s seedy areas to take pictures. Those pictures often captured the weakest moments of their subjects, who included children weeping and a young boy who had just been hit by a car. Maier took one of her charges, Inger Raymond, to a stockyard, where she exposed the young child to the slaughter of livestock. …

Despite Maier’s odd and mean behavior, at least two of her former charges had some affection for her, as they put her up in an apartment near the end of her life. In her final years, Maier often sat in the park, mumbling in French, eating food directly from a can, and accepting old clothes from strangers.

Jillian Steinhauer considers the movie “standard artist-as-subject fare” but still appreciates the tribute:

Finding Vivian Maier isn’t particularly experimental or innovative in form, and suffers from a bit of structural scrambling when the narrative veers abruptly at one point. But it does a good and moving job of telling the story of Maier, which is the most important and interesting thing under discussion. Maier’s life was — if not tragic, then certainly sad. … She became — and the film emphasizes this to great effect — one of those characters her younger self would have photographed: a crazy old poor lady. “There’s a lot of eccentric people around here, and I just thought she was one of them,” says a former neighbor.

Haley Mlotek calls the film a “necessary documentary, and a necessary story”:

As a photographer, Vivian captured scenes, places, people — the elements of life that cannot be fixed, things that are either converted into memories that dim over time or discarded as unimportant and not worth preserving. As I watched image after image of Vivian’s work, I wondered if Vivian would have even called herself a photographer. Some interviewees in the documentary talk about her peculiar habit of calling herself a spy, giving fake names and false histories to the people she interacted with — a woman at a pawn shop, a man at the library — instructing them to call her V. Smith, Vivian Mayer, and other such versions of her real name.

Mlotek goes on to consider what Maier might have made of the attention her work now receives:

Vivian liked too-good-to-be-true headlines, the kinds of stories you can only see in newspapers and never in fiction: “Man Bites Dog,” that sort of thing. [Co-director Charlie] Siskel told me, when I asked about whether Vivian would have enjoyed being the subject of so much attention, that Vivian “knew a great story when she heard one. We would like to think this is exactly the kind of story Vivian would have appreciated. Nanny takes 100,000 photos and hides them in storage lockers, but they’re discovered years later and she becomes a famous artist.’ That’s the kind of story Vivian would have liked.” I agree. But it’s not clear if that’s the kind of story Vivian wanted to tell.

Explore her work here. Previous Dish on Maier here.