It takes a certain quality to be street photographer. You need to get close enough to your subject in order to capture that decisive moment, yet manage to remain elusive, almost invisible to all. You always take the chance of offending someone for invading what may be considered a private moment. It’s a balancing act.
An unassuming woman, Vivian Maier, roamed the streets taking, and compiling, street scenes totaling more than 150,000 negatives and rolls of film. What may have helped Maier shoot her photographs without making eye contact was the type of camera she used. She always carried a Rolliflex which unlike a single lens reflex camera was the kind of camera you held at waist level, looked down at and thru the viewfinder. This meant, unlike with SLR’s you, the photographer, did not directly engage in eye (lens) to eye contact with the subject. It’s possible many of Maier’s subjects were not even aware they were being photographed.
For the most part none of these photographs were seen by anyone until about five years ago when they were slowly unleashed upon the cyber world. By most accounts Maier was an extremely private person who kept to herself. A bit of an eccentric. She was elusive to even those who knew her best; her employers and their kids. For 40 years she worked as a nanny and apparently felt most comfortable with kids. Yet, after looking at her photos you realized here was a woman whose work was remarkably in synch with photographic artists like Diane Arbus, Weegee (Arthur Felig) and Walker Evans. Whether Maier was even aware of these artists, I am unsure.
What I do know is the discovery of Vivian Maiser is a major find in the world of photography. The equivalent of a paleontologist discovering evidence about a new form of ancient life. On the surface, her photographs are seemingly simple shots of people on the street. Upon closer consideration you see she captured the world around her with all its incongruities and idiosyncrasies. Maier also took an enormous amount of self-portraits, so many, one wonders if she were trying to find herself within the images.
Where did she come from and who was Vivian Maiser is explored in the new documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Like her work, the film is at times tender, funny and unsettling. Her photographs can be humorous without being insulting. The people she photograph always retain their dignity.
It was co-director Maloof who in 2007 bought a box containing thousands of Maier’s negatives at a Chicago auction house for less than $400. (1) Maier lost much of her property when she couldn’t keep up the payments on a storage facility. At the time, all Maloof knew about Maier was her name which the auctioneer gave him at the time of the sale. When he looked her up on Google he found absolutely nothing. He originally purchased the box in hopes of finding old photos related to a book project he was working on. Realizing there was nothing of use for what he needed he put the box away and forgot about it. A short time later he took a second closer look and began to scan some of the photos and put them on FLICKR. Her work became an internet phenomena. Maloof began to inquire into how he could get an exhibition of her work launched. An exhibit would happen, sadly after Maier’s death. Like everything else about this discovery which exploded online, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds to finance a documentary on the photographer.
The result is an engrossing and poignant story about a woman who lived by her own odd rules. The film plays out as a real life mystery as Maloof, and we the audience, uncover and discover the life behind the artist. As in most documentaries, there are the talking heads. Included here are some of the now grown children left in Maier’s care. Their stories vary; some have fond memories; others are not too flattering. Maloof himself talks a lot about Maier and what her work means. However, at times one wonders if he is just trying to sell her for purely his own gains. What is more interesting and more important are the discussions and thoughts from photographers like Ralph Gibson and Mary Ellen Mark, both who talk highly of Maier’s work. Sadly on the verge of being discovered Vivian Maier had the rotten luck to die in 2009. You don’t have to be interested in photography to find this film engrossing. As mentioned, it plays out almost as a mystery, a fascinating one.
- He also purchased more boxes of Maier’s work from another auction bidder. Today Matloof owns the largest majority of Maier’s negatives. Also in his collection are rolls of undeveloped film, audio tape recordings, 8mm film and personal papers.