Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I found Vivian Maier

I'm a supporter of crowd-funding activities. A couple of years ago when I was thinking about doing a Kickstarter project and while I was funding a few more (still waiting for a DVD and a CD), I saw Jon Maloof's project about Vivian Maier. I was fascinated.
Last week I was fortunate enough to see a sneak-preview of "Finding Vivian Maier" and am still intrigued by the woman and her work. The movie shows many of her brilliant photographs interwoven among interviews with people who knew her during her life and with narration by John Maloof, who discovered her oeuvre after she had died. Having kept abreast of the developments around the film and having been given the book for Christmas, I thought I knew practically everything there was to know about this secretive street photographer: how her negatives had been bought at auction, were scanned and shared by Maloof on Flickr and on his blog and were considered brilliant enough by his audience on those sites that he got some media attention, ended up on TV and showed 80 posthumous prints at the Chicago Cultural Center. I also knew there was a film in the making and was looking forward to its release. Then a friend called up and invited me to the preview!

During the first 30 minutes of the film, the former nanny's charges remembered Maier(s) for the camera. Abrupt cuts in the interviews left the audience hungry for more details. In an attempt to hook the viewers into the biography by the apparent revelation of secrets, the director or editor cut the interview material just as one thought something was about to be revealed. Soon I bored of this game - as it just seemed to be going in circles and was not gaining momentum - and so I realized I was just going to have to take whatever came - at best, some more unpublished photographs, at worst, more unfortunate editing.
Maloof admits his concern at publishing a dead woman's work, yet says he is trying to share with the world the treasures he has found and which he feels need to be exposed. Maier is hardly King Tut, but one sometimes feels pulled between wanting to bury her secrets with her on the one hand and wanting to plunder her tomb (a storage rental space) to find more treasures on the other. For me, aside from the photographs, the most revealing moments came when I heard tapes played of her speaking voice, usually of her interviewing people in the yard or in the supermarket. These snippets, too, were cut too short, seemingly to leave enough material for "Vivian Maier: Found - Part II, the Continuing Saga". Perhaps the director thought that the visually-minded viewers of his film would want to see faces of interviewees (who one felt were rarely allowed to tell the whole story) rather than Super 8 films Maier made and cassettes she recorded.
The New Yorker published an enlightened article recently about the fact that the movie made her sound as if Maier were defective in some way because she didn't grab the fame and fortune that may have come her way, had she been well connected in the art world. In fact, what the article failed to mention is that she did try to have her photographs shown in the rural French town of Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur where her mother was from. Logistics seem to have made a cooperation with the owner of the camera store across the Atlantic impossible. And yet she continued to make photographs. The film makes no effort - whereas the article does - to portray her as an artist in her own right who lived with families so as to have a family and a home when it was convenient to her and so that she could continue to pursue her art while keeping her day job.
As a matter of fact, she pursued her art while she was on the job. She would take the children to the gothic sides of town where she could find fodder for her film. Like so many artists, she took a pragmatic approach to life. Knowing she would not be able to support herself with her art, she found a way to kill several birds with one stone. She would work for families taking care of their children. That way she would have family life - when she wanted it - without the emotional attachments which might distract her from her work. She would have a home without having to pay the upkeep or worry about its depreciation. Printing and marketing her work effectively while still walking the streets and shooting - which she loved - would have been too much for her.
Sadly, it seems that Maloof wanted to ride the wave of interest in Maier (his or the public's?) while it was still thundering through the media and he made this film before even developing and viewing all of Maier's work. I can only believe that he is hoping there will be some more revelations and enough material for a second film. One can only hope that he makes enough money from this movie and from the luscious books to be able to hire a professional documentary film maker for the second chapter.


  1. Hello Jim - I, too, am fascinated with her work, and was a bit disappointed with the movie, which I saw in Berlin. I love the way you put her into a better light through your comment of 'pragmatic approach'. One other aspect that needs to be considered is also, that she was a woman, for whom it would have been even more difficult to take a stand in the art world. Let's hope Maloof has the stamina to keep digging out more stuff about her...

  2. Thank you for your comment, Uta! A photographer asked me recently what I thought about her WORK as opposed to her STORY, made me think that since I identify so closely with her and her way of working, I accept the photographs for what they are and don't even want to judge whether they are better than Diane Arbus's photography or worse than Winogrand's. They are what they are. The fact that she was a woman was certainly a strike against her at the time. We've come a long way - yet have a long way to go!