Film Review – Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier is a portrait of a woman nobody really knew but who had a gift that inspired many. Vivian Maier was a nanny who was also a great photographer who kept all her work secret. During her life, many people saw her taking pictures but no one knew much about her as an individual or how many pictures she had taken and how good they were. This changes after her death when John Maloof, a historian (and co-director of this film with Charlie Siskel), purchased a box of old negatives, became intrigued by her, and sought to find out who she was.
In reconstructing who she was, there are interviews with the children that she was a nanny to, and the few friends she had in her life. Then her pictures are shown and discussed by Maloof and professional photographers to try to explain what they think about who she is, by what she has photographed. From them, we get a vision of someone who was passionate, but very private, to the point that she appears to have been deliberately misleading people in odd ways, including the way she spoke and by changing how she wanted people to address her, depending on which family she was with. To say she was a mystery is an understatement, but the film is an exploration of the passion the directors feel for their subject and a desire to make her known.
The directors’ dedication to painting a picture of this woman who inspired them never kept them from making clear that there were things about her that were not always pleasant. The editing and structure of the film strengthens the sense of who Vivian was, by first exposing us to her photos and some of her eccentricities, letting us see the beauty she created while making her seem quirky, but harmless, so we are intrigued to follow their journey with her. All this happens before getting into the darker aspects of who she was, recognizing there was a pain in her that drove some of her odd behavior and could negatively affect those around her, making her not a saint or a demon, but rather someone whose inner pain made her a genius as an artist, but also left her unable to interact with people in many ways.
This could easily have fallen into depressing details of a poor old woman, but the film never lets that become the focus. Her photographs are where we see the most about her and the photographs shown to us are beautiful, coming from the perspective of someone who has no eye for this kind of work. That she was able to find random people on the street and catch them in magnificent poses and capture the light so perfectly while most of them appear to not be aware that she was photographing them, shows an eye of a true artist. Do they reflect her as a person? She appeared to have a strong sense of social justice and of the poor who take up a lot of her work. She also had an obsessive personality and ways of seeing people that made her find the worst in people. The truth is we may never know what she was thinking when she took these pictures. But that may be okay; art is to be enjoyed and we now have these pictures that can be seen online, in museums, and in books. Art has been preserved for those who want it.
The passion the directors have for their subject is infectious and they know how to keep the momentum going to make what is, overall, an unsolvable mystery, as clear as possible and letting us see some beautiful art in between. With all the people they meet, it seems that the clearest picture of her we will get is what they have shown to us. Is it complete? No, but their subject went to great lengths to hide who she was and the mental issues she had didn’t help there be a completely rational reason for her behavior. In the end, though, what we do have is beautiful pictures and some possible reasons why she took them. Like most art, her pictures are subjective in what we take from them. The important thing is that she has been found and appreciated and that is what the directors truly want.