“Finding Vivian Maier” is a Spellbinding Portrait of a Mysterious Woman and Genius Photographer

Vivian Maier was a nanny during her lifetime, but became an extraordinary photographer after she died—all by accident.

It took all of her life for American-French nanny Vivian Maier to finally be recognised for her instinctive street photography. With shots that embodied the atmosphere of Chicago’s streets and alleys in the 60s and onwards, her work remained unknown until it was discovered after her death. It’s almost as if she took her photographs in secret—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Maier was always present with a camera in her hands relentlessly taking pictures of everything and everybody that caught her eye, and seemingly with no idea of people’s personal space. At least that’s the idea communicated in Finding Vivian Maier—an intimate documentary, written, directed and produced by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, unraveling the photographer’s train of thought by portraying the minds and opinions of people who knew her.

As told by John Maloof, who discovered Vivian Maier’s legacy, his journey with her work started as a pure coincidence. Maloof had been working on a historical book about Chicago’s Northwest side and participated in different auctions to gain high resolution photos of the area. 

One day, Maloof took part in an open auction of locker content. Taking a gamble and shelling out 400 USD for one of the boxes, little did he know its contents were a body of stunning street photography about to change lives.

The documentary portrays the American-French photographer as a mysterious, slightly strange and very secretive woman working as a nanny and housekeeper for most of her life. Interestingly enough, in conversations with people she once knew, most seem taken aback; not by her taking photos – she carried her camera everywhere – but by the fact that she had such a good eye for photography.

In the film, children (now grown adults), their parents and people who had caught a little glimpse of Maier’s life recall her as an extremely honest and opinionated person. Luckily for the viewer, this is backed up by snippets of Maier’s own films; although photography was her main focus, she still dabbled in filmmaking and used the medium to express her personal views. For example, there’s a scene in the documentary which showcases one of Maier’s own films. It simply features the photographer provoking to bystanders with a supposed lack of political stance with the question, “Well, you should have an opinion, I hope?’’

Vivian Maier surely did. So do the children she once took care of: looking back at the time spent with the photographer/nanny, their opinions are split. ‘I don’t think she liked kids at all, really. I think she liked images. When she saw an image she had to capture it,’ one of the kids says. In contrast, another one simply states: ‘Life was more adventurous with her around.’

Nevertheless, Maier seemingly made a conscious choice with her profession: as the film demonstrates, being a nanny gave her enough freedom to pursue her main hobby. It’s an admirable and powerful decision credited to an admirable and powerful woman, thanks to editing that highlights the mesmerising energy of her voice, looks and secretive presence. Altogether, Finding Vivian Maier creates a compelling portrait that almost hypnotizes you from the very beginning of the film. Furthermore, kudos to the movie producer for the immaculate combination of storytelling and archive photography—an excruciatingly long process, but one that made the film come together in the end.

 

Maier was an unusual soul; there is no doubt about that. I believe that her impact on the world isn’t just about photography: her persistence, eventful life and talent is a great inspiration for women (and men) nowadays and for many years to come.