Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Cast: John Maloof, Joel Meyerowitz
Watch Finding Vivian Maier online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Eircom / Virgin Movies / EE / TalkTalk / Curzon Home Cinema
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Co-directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, this fascinating documentary tells the story of photographer Vivian Maier, whose extraordinary images were only discovered after her death. Part detective story and part portrait of an eccentric artist, the film follows Maloof’s attempts to learn more about Maier’s life, after he accidentally unearths her work at an auction and subsequently becomes the owner and curator of her entire estate.
Maloof discovers that Vivian worked as a nanny to various Chicago and New York households in the ’50s and ’60s, often taking her young charges into dangerous and run-down areas of the city so she could indulge her street photography habit with the twin-lens Rolleiflex camera that was always around her neck. Incredibly, despite the extraordinary images she produced, Maier barely even got around to developing her photos, usually dumping rolls of undeveloped film in boxes wherever she happened to be living at the time. (She was, evidently, something of a hoarder.) Indeed, Maloof reveals that he has over 100,000 of her photographs, some of which he still hasn’t seen.
The majority of the film consists of interviews with people who knew Maier, including various landlords, acquaintances, employers and several former children she used to look after as a nanny. Gradually, a picture emerges of a deeply eccentric woman, given to wearing men’s clothing and adopting a fake French accent, although it’s worth pointing out that several accounts are contradictory, to say the least. There are also hints that she may have suffered both abuse as a child and mental illness as an adult – several interviewees identify her “dark side” and at least one recalls being treated badly while under her care.
Needless to say, Maloof and Siskel illustrate the film with hundreds of Maier’s astonishing photos (google her work now – you won’t regret it), with her portfolio drawing entirely justified comparisons with the work of acclaimed street photographers, such as Weegee, Diane Arbus or Robert Frank. She had a particular gift for photographing down-and-outs or slum children, suggesting she felt an affinity for those on the edges of society. In addition, Maloof and Siskel have found Super 8 footage and audio recorded by Maier herself, most of which reveals her playful nature when looking after her charges.
Ultimately, it’s impossible not to be equally moved and fascinated by Maier’s story, not least because the film never quite answers the question of why she didn’t try and make her work public. There is also a slightly uncomfortable element to the film because of Maloof’s obvious vested interest as the sole rights holder to her estate and you can’t help wondering what might have been left out. Nonetheless, this is an utterly riveting and powerfully emotional documentary that will have you scouring the internets to find as much of Vivian’s work as possible. Highly recommended.
Planning to stay up late for the Academy Awards this Sunday? Find out where to watch the Oscars online live in the UK – legally and for free.