Finding Vivian Maier (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4): A nanny who was also a photographer

lookingforvivianmaier05The photos shown in Oscar-nominated documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” are something to watch and appreciate for the mood and feelings they evoke. Mostly shot in black and white, they vividly capture the places and people of bygone eras, and then you cannot help but be curious about an elusive woman who took all these photos and many other ones throughout her plain life. She was a very talented amateur photographer, but she was just remembered as an odd nanny until her legacy happened to be discovered not long after her death.

The story begins with the co-director/co-producer John Maloof’s accidental discovery in 2007. At that time, Maloof was planning on writing a history book on the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago, and he was searching for any old useful photos when he came across a box filled with photo negatives at a local auction. Although they turned out to be not exactly what he was looking for, these photo negatives drew his attention for the apparent talent of someone behind the camera, so he began to search for their mysterious owner – Vivian Maier.

Only with her name, it was pretty difficult for Maloof to find Maier because she was not some famous photographer, but he eventually acquired the basic information about who she was. She worked during most of her life as a nanny for many families around the North Shore suburban area of Chicago, and, as a matter of fact, she was very much alive when Maloof discovered her photo negatives, though she died in 2009 while probably never imagining that her photographs would get lots of attention from others.

As her photos posted on his blog went viral on the Internet, Maloof naturally became more interested about Maier. He and his directorial partner Charlie Siskel, who is a nephew of late Chicago critic Gene Siskel, approached to various people who knew Maier as their nanny or employee, and the interviewees including Phil Donahue (he was one of her employers) tell us about each own experience with Maier in front the camera.

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While she was not exactly a pleasant or intimate person, Maier was surely someone to be remembered for good and bad things, and we come to feel more curious about this rather eccentric woman as we hear more of many episodes about her. As reflected by a number of her self-photographs, she was usually with her camera for whatever to be captured in her photographs, and she was sometimes focused on her hobby a little much during her work time. She often went around the city with children in her charge just for taking photographs, and she even went to the urban areas which were not so suitable for children – but that certainly gave them amusing experiences to talk about as they remember their quirky nanny.

And these photos she shot on the streets clearly show us that she could have a nice professional career if she had wanted. Many of her photos show various people you might have come across during the periods when they were shot, and you cannot help but curious about who they were or what they were thinking as looking at them. One of the most memorable photos to me is a little African American boy shining a Caucasian boy’s shoes. Were they conscious of their racial difference when they happened to be captured by Maier’s photo? Or was that Maier intended when she shot it?

While Maier becomes more visible as a photographer through her vast amount of works unearthed by Maloof, she still remains elusive as a person in comparison despite his continued search. Besides more photo negatives, he also found home movies, audio tape recordings, and other various documents left by her, but nothing can tell much about her. Considering her scant family records discovered in New York, we can only guess that Maier was an extremely private person for some unknown personal reason; she never told her employers about her life in New York, and she even disguised herself with a fake European accent.

lookingforvivianmaier02Some of the interviewees tell us about Maier’s dark sides later in the documentary, and their disturbing episodes suggest that she suffered from mental disability/illness. For instance, she was very obsessive about collecting whatever came into her private life, and one of the interviewees tells us how Maier became quite hysterical after she casually took some of newspapers collected in Maier’s small private room, which was already full of stacks of newspapers.

After she could not work any more during her later years, her condition became worse, and Maier did not have much money to support herself. Thanks to a kind help from two brothers who once grew up under her charge, she could spend her last years in a small apartment of Rogers Park community area of Chicago, and she was merely remembered as a quiet old lady who sometimes sat on a nearby bench by her neighbors until her death caused by one unfortunate accident.

It is possible that Maier probably did not want any attention on her works or herself, so Maloof naturally wonders at one point whether showing her photos to the public is a right thing to do. While we will never know what Maier would think about that, two things are very clear to us; 1) Maloof is sincerely caring about Maier’s works, and 2) her photos are good enough to be shown to us. As Maloof suggests around the end of the documentary, his late discovery and promotion of her works would be approved by her, considering that it probably does not matter to her now.

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