Finding Vivian Maier is an interesting documentary. In an effort to peel back the layers of a complicated and elusive figure, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel have sifted through the remnants of Vivian Maier’s life, which are plentiful. Through thousands of photographs and hundreds of negatives, Maloof and Siskel began to unfold the story of the woman behind, and at times in front of, the camera. Travelling through New York, Chicago, and a remote village in France, they spoke to those who knew her. Piecing together her life through varied accounts and scattered documentation, they’ve shown us as clear a picture as we may ever have of the posthumous sensation sweeping the globe: live-in nanny Vivian Maier.
Though Maloof does showcase Maier’s photography, it’s not her work that’s his focus. Between the sheer volume of output and the secrecy with which she lived, he became compelled to discover the woman herself.
Playing the detective, Maloof sought out those who may have known Maier. Going back through her photographs, and tracking down area code-less phone numbers from the 1950’s and 1960’s, he was able to find her former clients. Children she once cared for now grown up, their parents elderly and retired, everyone was equally as shocked to discover the secret she’d hid from them. Some were stunned and pleasantly surprised, while others felt insulted and hurt by her secrecy. Her connection to her clients and her charges varied drastically over the years, progressively becoming more worrisome as she aged. In spite of her challenging quirks, everyone felt a fondness for her.
Perhaps one of the most compelling things about Maier was her inconsistency. Some swore you’d be smacked for referring to her as Viv, while others couldn’t fathom the formality of only using her surname. As the story unfolds, her personality begins to take shape. What we’re left with is the story of a brilliant but troubled mind.
Maloof and Siskel have created an engrossing story of a complex person. They don’t glorify her eccentricity, nor do they vilify her abusive tendencies. They portray her as honestly and fairly as possible. Maloof’s glee as Maier takes shape in his mind is impossible to hide. His childlike fascination with her seeps into the story of her life, and it’s infectious.
Maloof makes it clear from the beginning that the film is about unearthing the truth of Vivian Maier. Who she was, how she lived, and where she came from. Though she is taking the world by storm as one of the century’s most relevant street photographers, the goal here is to shine the light on the woman herself. What we’re left with is a clear portrait of a troubled and eccentric woman. Difficult to love, she lived and died alone, but was held fondly in the hearts of those she worked for. Her life was an enigma, and this was the first step towards unearthing the woman behind the camera.
Originally published on Row Three on September 7th, 2013