The strange, wonderful thing about the documentary Finding Vivian Maier is how it uncovers one story, only to veer off and tell another one entirely. On one level, it’s about a young man who discovers the forgotten work of a genuine artist, then takes it upon himself to share her work. It’s also a character study of an eccentric woman who worked as a nanny and fought mental illness. Then there are interviews with the children she helped raise, all of whom are now adults, and what they say sneakily reveals more about themselves than the nanny they’re discussing. Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel weave this dense material with sensitivity, although there are times where a digression gets the best of them.
Maloof is the subject of the documentary’s opening act. Looking directly at the camera, he explains how he won a box of old photographic negatives for $380 at an auction in Chicago (he was looking for old photos to illustrate a history book). All the negatives are the work of Vivian Maier, and it surprises Maloof that she’s a brilliant street photographer. Driven by insatiable curiosity, he digs into obituaries and census records. He finds several families who employed Maier as their nanny, and they remember her with varying degrees of warmth. Between anecdotes about Maier’s life – she was a deeply private woman with a healthy sense of adventure – Maloof uncovers scant biographical details about her. The development and distribution of her work is another frustrating venture: galleries are reluctant to display posthumous work, even if art lovers cannot get enough of it.
The structure of Finding Vivian Maier cannily draws us into the world of mid-century Chicago and New York. Maloof and Siskel’s weapon is Maier’s photography: in one stunning shot after another, her square portraits capture some measure of humanity (her cityscapes are also quite beautiful). The secret to her success is quite practical. The viewfinder of her camera pointed upward, not outward, so she was able to focus on her subject secretly while looking downward, with the camera resting on her chest. There are two important results of this technique: it enabled Maier to take candid shots, and the lowered lens gave her subjects a level of grace (in her best shots, she caught children at eye-level). There are times in Finding Vivian Maier where the directors cut between shots too quickly that it’s meant to be frustrating. Maloof discovered tens of thousands of photographs, and the crisp editing is a good metaphor for how overwhelmed he once felt.
The lengthy middle section of the documentary is where Maloof interviews the men and women who were under Maier’s care, as well as her employers and friends. The only thing everyone agrees on is that Maier was strange. Some remember her fondly and with love, while another recounts how she was a victim of Maier’s abuse. Maloof and Siskel wisely do not editorialize anything these men and women say – at the very least, they suggest objectivity – and the uneven memories are a reflection of a woman who would go through good spells and bad. Some of the anecdotes are darkly funny; when a boy was hit by a car, for example, Vivian grabs her camera instead of helping him. But there’s an aura of resigned sadness throughout the flashbacks and stories. Maier was secretive to a fault – her talent surprised everyone – and all the kids/parents recall a moment when she went off the rails. Maloof discovers some biographical details, yet they leave more questions than answers, and the cumulative effect is that her work is all the more alluring.
The directors shift through several time periods, sometimes within minutes, so there are times during Finding Vivian Maier when they lose their sense of pace. A section in the middle drags because there are no new secrets to uncover, and the focus turns away from Maier’s work. Unsurprisingly, some of the directors’ interviewees are more interesting/sympathetic than others. There’s one woman, now in her fifties or early sixties, who lived with Maier in Wisconsin and she seems quirky enough to find a kindred spirit in her caretaker. Through no fault of their own, the adults who remember Maier as their nanny come off as more annoying: children are conservative insofar that routine balances them, so they were (rightly) frustrated when Maier would put her needs over theirs. Maier’s talent remains immaterial to the memory of their children; they see her prolific talent is an aside, an asterisk to child memories that were occasionally traumatic. The irony is not lost on Maloof, who wisely ends with the eloquent photographer so that the audience can regain an appreciation of Maier’s genius.
Finding Vivian Maier is a complex portrait of a complex woman, yet it ends with a note of measured happiness. Her work is getting the recognition it richly deserves, although Maloof and some of Maier’s friends correctly point out she would rather have had none of it. In fact, the film glosses over the uneasiness of spreading the work of an unknown artist: there is a perfunctory scene where Maloof uses an unsent letter as proof that yes, on some level, Maier wanted to share her photography (it’s not entirely convincing). But then there is another beautiful shot of an unhappy vagrant or a child who has probably seen too much, and we’re forced to agree with Maloof: we may not be honoring Maier’s wishes, but maybe that’s immaterial since the art world is a better place with her distinctive eye in it.