On a flight to San Diego, I wanted to watch Still Alice but didn’t want to pay $6 and, in the end, also realized it would’ve been painfully awkward had I cried on the plane. So, instead of Alice (still on my list), I watched Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary created by John Maloof, a guy who finds hundreds of thousands of negatives. Maloof claims to have an eye for the valuable and, as the title suggests, decides to find out who took these abandoned photographs. Who was he/she? Why were their pictures never developed? Unfortunately the finding part doesn’t take long, so really the film should be titled “Understanding Vivian Maier” to more accurately explain Maloof’s mission.
Turns out, Maier was a nanny. Maloof meets various families she’d worked for and is able to fill them in on this discovery, as well as ask about Maier. It’s confusing that some featured claim they had no idea she took photos, while others plainly explain that of course she did, she always had a camera around her neck and would stop strangers for portraits. We learn that Maier was very extremely private, going as far as to not give people her real name. As Maloof continues to question one shop owner about whether or not this was strange to her, she replies, “We didn’t think as much about it as you are,” and I laughed out loud. Maloof really is trying to get every detail but for no reason other than to, in my opinion, feel less guilty about receiving money thanks to Maier’s work for the prints sold and galleries opened.
The documentary is definitely intriguing, particularly in the ways Maloof is able to connect the past and present. Throughout interviews, certain events or places are mentioned and Maloof is able to fill the screen with a photo Maier had taken. The film is also a blend of modern and archaic, such as when we see Maloof using Google images to determine which city in France Maier visited, depending solely on visible church steeples. In addition to this mix of past and present though, the film can look very glamorous and, at other times, like it was shot on an iPhone (and in a negative way, not like Tangerine). It can be difficult to watch.
Maier’s photographs are stunning, and I was grateful to think so– it makes the film all the more interesting when you agree that she was an artist, shrouded in secrecy and discovered too late. But maybe not. Her work still shares messages of inclusivity, of looking up at those around you. She was incredibly observant, in a style similar to the now-popular Humans of New York, and was ruthless in a Max Braverman document-them-crying kind of way. To find her images now and find them still relevant says a lot about our culture and is eye opening in its own right. She also proved, before it was a thing, to be the queen of selfies and now has a book of self portraits published. Take that, Kim.