Though we know very little about some of the great artists of the past,
many say that it is not important because we have the works. Yet the
world still longs for knowledge about the living, breathing human
being, the man or woman behind the name on the painting or the title
page. This element of mystery is what makes John Maloof and Charlie
Siskel's documentary Finding Vivian Maier so intriguing, yet also
leaves us wanting to know more. The subject of the film is an unknown
photographer whose art has been compared to the masters, though she
never exhibited her work and little is known about her life.
The photos, discovered by Maloof, display a segment of society invisible to many in the 1950s - the old, the poor, the black, the young, and the disenfranchised, a kaleidoscope of stunning images that poignantly capture the faces of humanity with humor and rare sensitivity. The story begins with John Maloof reporting how he purchased a box of negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007 for a book he was working on. Told that the photographs were by Vivian Maier, he did not recognize the name and could find nothing about her on Google. After stashing the box away for two years, Maloof decided to scan some images and post them on Flickr.
Writing on the website that he had about 30,000 negatives of Maier's work that cover a period ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s, he requested direction, asking whether the photos are worthy of an exhibition or a book. Shortly after that, an article appeared in a British newspaper and the Chicago Cultural Center presented an exhibition of her work in 2011. Kickstarter provided the funding and this documentary began to take shape. Still digging for more information, the second half of the film is devoted to discoveries the director made about Maier and they are not all pretty.
What we do know is that Maier was born in 1926 and spent some time in France before working as a nanny for upper middle class families in the Chicago suburbs (including a brief time with Phil Donahue). Always dressed in an old-fashioned suit, Maier would walk through streets and alleys with the children she cared for, snapping black and white photographs with her Rolleiflex camera that she held down by her waist. Interviews with past employers and grown children, though often contradictory, reveal a private but very complex individual with strong opinions that she did not hesitate to share. They also indicate that she had a dark side and her reported bizarre behavior may have indicated serious emotional problems.
There are also stories about her room being filled with newspaper as high as the ceiling, that she used a fake French accent (though some do not recall any accent at all), and changed her name with each family she worked for, often giving phony names. One woman remembered that Maier told her that she was "sort of a spy." Some of those interviewed have more upsetting memories about coercion and bullying, but the film does not dwell on them, nor provide anyone to either counter or corroborate them. We do learn, however, that when Vivian was much older, two of the children she cared moved her into an apartment and finally into a nursing home where she died in 2009.
Unfortunately, neither of these loving children was interviewed, leaving a tantalizingly vague idea of who she really was. Though admittedly he has a commercial interest in its promotion, Maloof has done a public service by making the world aware of the work of this great artist and has been willing to spend an enormous amount of time and money in the process. Though this has resulted in her work now being displayed in galleries all over the world, the question of why her photographs have not been accepted by the Museum of Modern Art is left unexplored.
The bigger mystery - why she chose to withhold the photos from the world, of course, is still unknown and the film sheds very little light on this puzzle. Like last year's Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, another unknown but very talented artist, Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating ride. Unlike Rodriguez, however, Vivian Maier will never hear the applause.
Finding Vivian Maier
Action / Biography / Documentary / Mystery
Finding Vivian Maier
Action / Biography / Documentary / Mystery
The film opens up cutting between footage of a handful of people, each in their home, and each pensively waiting to be interviewed. The brief snippets shown clarify that each will be speaking about their recollections of the same woman, as a part of finding insight into the mystery. Switch to the filmmaker,John Maloof explaining how a trip to a local auction house, in search for old pictures to use for a book history of his neighborhood resulted in him bidding, and winning a box full of old negatives. John, goes through the massive quantity of negatives, describes how impressed he was by the quality of the images, quickly determined they were not relevant to his project and just put them away. That could have very likely had been the end of the story, if the power of the images had not pushed him to fall in love with photography. John confides that his photo hobby quickly motivated him to set up a darkroom and devote large amounts of time shooting. As he learned more about photography, he recognized that those negatives he had bought, then stored, were the work of a real master. In an attempt to confirm his suspicion, he selected about 100 images and put them online with the hope that the feedback would confirm his judgement as to the strength of the images. He got his confirmation!Mr. Maloof had the artistic vision and business savvy to go back to that auction house, track-down others that had bought Vivian's negatives that day and buy them all, returning the collection to whole. The amount of images was truly astounding, and total over 100,000, and unlike today's digital world, she was shooting primarily with a Rolleiflex Camera, a roll of 120 film holds 12 images.In addition to the film, John found receipts, notes and just enough information to attempt to find out who was this prolific mystery woman. Interestingly, it was not that difficult to discover who she was and people that knew her, the secret was that she had been a masterful artist. Everyone knew her as the slightly odd, but rather nice nanny.- Lane J. Lubell of Cinemashadow.com
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November 13, 2014 at 12:31 AM