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‘Finding Vivian Meier’: Is the pursuit of fame an artistic requirement?

Finding Vivian Maier is an often fascinating film of anthropology, an investigative peek down the rabbit hole of one eccentric and very private woman’s life. Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for several wealthy Chicago families. She was, by most accounts, responsible, dutiful, imperious, harsh and intrepid.

She took her young charges on outings throughout the rougher corners of the city, bringing along the usual accouterments of the nanny trade: strollers, diapers, baby bottles and snacks. She also carried a Rolleiflex camera, a boxy big cousin to the old Brownie cameras of 50’s and 60’s era childhoods.  With it she snapped thousands upon thousands of pictures, most of them black-and-white, many of them left undeveloped in their canisters. Nearly all of them are astonishing.

Maier was not famous. She never received a penny for her photographs. She shared very few of them. Hardly anyone was aware of the staggering quality of her work. She died a hoarder’s death in a cramped apartment, surrounded by towering stacks of newspapers. When John Maloof, who co-directed this film along with Charlie Siskel, bought several boxes that belonged to Maier at an estate auction, he also had no idea who she was or what the boxes contained. He was just a guy who grew up going to swap meets and enjoyed sifting through the artifacts of other people’s lives. When he discovered the massive trove of pictures, he quickly turned to the Internet to help piece together Maier’s background in an attempt to determine, at least initially, if her photographs were already copyrighted, if she’d once had exhibitions, if anyone else was aware of her talent. Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of Maloof’s archaeological expedition.

Maier’s photographs are stunning. Technically perfect, compositionally astute, powerfully evocative. They are classic street photographs, parallel to the work of Robert Frank, Helen Leavitt, Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus, documentary snapshots of lives lived in the moment on the sidewalks and buses, in the parks and the stockyards, of a great American city. They avoid sentimentalism in favor of direct confrontation, they are sneaky but never coy, intimate but not invasive. She no doubt used the young children in her care as a ploy to get close to her subjects. After all, how threatening could a couple of kids and their nanny be, especially one dressed in the frumpy outfits of a schoolmarm?

Once Maloof establishes the character of Maier’s work, he delves into Maier the character. What he discovers is intriguing but only fitfully surprising. Maier’s life turns out to be interesting, but only up to the point where it becomes clear she valued her privacy and she liked to take a lot of pictures. The movie then begins to repeat itself, and it pries into delicate areas of Maier’s life, which may enrich our knowledge of her idiosyncrasies, but not her creative spirit.

The filmmakers miss an opportunity to explore the real subject of the film, which is a cultural insistence that any artist must possess, along with their talent, the antecedents of publicity and ambition. Is it not enough to simply enjoy the taking of pictures, but one also has to organize them, display them, sell them and then have them fêted by critics and colleagues? Are eventual fame and critical acclaim the only acceptable ends to the means? Maloof is determined for Maier to have her day in the rarefied sun of artistic acceptance, but a more urgent question is why many museum tastemakers still refuse to acknowledge her work. Are they miffed because they didn’t discover her first, or because to them she was merely a hobbyist? Perhaps Maier simply wanted to be left alone, an argument Finding Vivian Maier has now rendered moot.

This review first appeared in The Restless Critic.

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