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The Emily Dickinson of Photographs or the Anti-Mary Poppins? 'Finding Vivian Maier'

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens March 26, 2014 at 8:58AM

Among all the types of artists -- crazy, tortured, or mild in life but wild in art -- the ones who create in private and never share with the world may be the hardest to fathom. Vivian Maier, an eccentric nanny, is now recognized as one of the most prolific, dazzling street photographers of the 20th century.
Vivian Maier

Among all the types of artists -- crazy, tortured, or mild in life but wild in art -- the ones who create in private and never share with the world may be the hardest to fathom; they leave so few fingerprints as clues. And with those secretive cases the mystery of creation becomes even more tantalizing, as it does with Vivian Maier, once an eccentric nanny known only to a few Chicago families who hired and sometimes fired her, and now recognized as one of the most prolific, dazzling street photographers of the 20th century.

"Finding Vivian Maier" is not a work of art in itself, but it is a fascinating, smartly-made film that reveals a great deal about Maier's rich, varied photographs -- from the ragged homeless to prim 1950's matrons waltzing down Fifth Avenue -- and provides a glimpse at a personality so bizarre and hidden it may never be unveiled.

The smartly-constructed film begins by showing us Maier's photos and tells the story of their discovery. John Maloof, an amateur historian who co-directed the film with Charlie Siskel, bought a box of photographs at an auction in 2007, gambling they might work for book in progress. Instead, he discovered some of Maier's negatives. He tracked down more of her work, about to be tossed out of a storage unit, and eventually accumulated thousands of negatives and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. By the time he found his first trace of Maier herself, in 2009, it was her recent obituary; she had died alone and poor at 82.

While Maloof tells this story, the film shows us more of Maier's work, with its richly-contrasted black-and-white, its sense of life being caught as it happens. Her work suggests Diane Arbus', but with a gentler tone and less focus on social outcasts. There is a touch of Weegee, but her interest isn't limited to the lower classes. Her self-portraits show a long-necked, unglamorous suburban woman of the '50's staring into the camera with an opaque, unflinching gaze. As the eminent photographer Mary Ellen Mark says, Maier's work  had a great sense of framing and of light, "a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy . . .  she had it all."   

In interviews, former employers and the now-grown children she cared for during the 50's, 60's and 70's recall her. She was, by all accounts, obsessive, always carrying a camera, often a Rolleiflex around her neck. But she never showed her work publicly or even (as far as we know) to the people around her. She was often at the movies, always alone.

And just when we think she might be the Emily Dickinson of photography, laboring quietly and apart from the world's acclaim, we find she was something much darker. A hoarder, she insisted on a sturdy lock on her bedroom door; one employer peeked in to see stacks of newspapers filling the room, with a small path left for Maier to get to the bed. In audio recordings she left behind, Maier's accent is hard to place. Although she was born in New York, she spent much of her childhood in her mother's small French village. But a linguistics expert in the film insists the accent is fake. To my untrained ear it sounds more German than French, but whatever it is, it is definitely odd.

It also turns out that she was a terrible nanny. She dragged the kids to seedy parts of town so she could photograph low-life subjects. One woman recalls that Maier left her and her brother on the street to teach them a lesson; they were found by a policeman. Another says Maier force-fed her. Their memories differ, and some say her strangeness was innocuous, but she does not sound like a person you'd choose to trust your children to.

Maloof and Siskel set all this out in a fluid if uninspired way. And they leave some huge gaps that are not due to Maier's character. Maloof says that a family she had worked for was paying for the storage unit, but that family isn't identified. Several of the children she'd cared for paid for a roof over her head in her old age, but again we don't know who they are or if they're in the film.  Those benefactors may want to remain private, but more clarity from the filmmakers would have helped.

Even the gaps in "Finding Vivian Maier" add to her aura of being unknown and unknowable, though. Why photograph so compulsively yet never develop all those rolls of film in overflowing boxes?

The faces that look out from her photographs seem fully real with a rich inner life, yet they always have a touch of the enigmatic. Maier was probably a person you'd avoid in real life, a cranky nuisance at best; but her images draw you toward them, endlessly intrigued.

 Today you can find Maier all over the internet. One place to start:

This article is related to: Reviews, Finding Vivian Maier, John Maloof , Charlie Siskel

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