Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Long-Lost Love

Today's film: Finding Vivian Maier.

Car buffs dream of that once-in-a-lifetime discovery of the vintage '55 Porsche 550 Spyder or Mercedes 300 Gull Wing sitting dusty and forgotten in the back corner of some barn in Iowa, a miracle of automotive history covered in bird shit but otherwise pristine. Art buffs must have a similar dream of discovering the forgotten work of an indisputable master hanging forgotten in some dude's basement, or I think of Bach's Neumeister chorale preludes being found tucked in some book in the Yale library in 1984. Something of undeniable value and preciousness hidden in plain sight for decades.

Vivian Maier is that same kind of story in human form. Born in 1926 in New York City, she lived a quiet life almost entirely off the radar, eking out a career as a nanny in a succession of households around the country. But her real passion was photography, and she chose the profession of nannying in part because it let her spend her days wandering the streets taking photographs. Though she was of course known to the families with whom she worked, she was otherwise a bit of a recluse, and she made little or no effort to display her photographs to anyone, collecting more and more negatives and films around her to no end, moving an ever-larger collection of boxes with her from place to place.

She died in Chicago in 2009. A couple years prior to that, one of her unpaid storage units was emptied out and the contents, including a number of boxes of negatives, were put up for auction. A young man, John Maloof, purchased one of the boxes for some $300. When he got them home and began to look through them, he realized he was looking at a gold mine. He tracked down the other winning bidders of that auction and purchased their boxes of negatives from them. Maier was still alive at this point, but she died about the same time he decided to figure out who this unknown artist was. By the end of his search he had accumulated some 100,000 negatives and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film, plus a whole storage unit worth of junk she had squirreled away. There was a lot of chaff, but it was undeniably a treasure trove.

The film Finding Vivian Maier, co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, is Maloof's attempt to put Maier's work before a wider public. It consists of Maloof himself telling his story (which includes a trip to France to interview people who knew her there) plus interviews with a number of people who were nannied by her over the decades. She seems to have had few if any friends and no acquaintances apart from the children with whom she worked. All of this is interspersed with her glorious photographs, mostly of street life in NYC and other places, and with the (to me) considerably less-compelling movie footage she shot and her cassette recordings of herself just... chattering.

I realize that a film needs to be something more than just a 90-minute slideshow of her photographic work, but Maloof tries mightily to find out what made Maier tick and in the process delves maybe more deeply into her mysterious personal life than is really necessary. She appears not to have been an entirely normal person, and her abnormality (if that's the right word) is compelling in a quiet, voyeuristic sort of way--she was stubbornly single and had a hot-and-cold temperament and was a packrat; as she got older she seemed to be more and more in the grip of paranoia. And loneliness. But I can't help thinking that none of these things really contributed much to what made her extraordinary. In any case, the film is certainly more intrusive than she herself would have welcomed or approved of. It's an open question about what she would think of her work finding a large audience, but there seems little doubt that she would hate the attention directed at her person.

Having said that, the borderline-obsessiveness with which she documented everything around her, and the cheeky boldness required to get many of the portraits she captures make her an appealing enigma (which is no doubt why Maloof focuses on it; he's trying to sell someone whose body of work needs to be recognized). I have long loved photography myself, and in my line of work I find that I snap photos kind of unconsciously. But--at the risk of comparing my brain-dead dabbling with the work of a great artist--I can't help feeling rather painfully the huge gulf between her photos and mine. So far as we know, she was entirely self-taught, yet the brilliance of her eye practically jumps off the page and grabs you by the lapels. The photos are just breathtaking, collectively as fabulous as any I've seen by any other photographer. (Susan is always ribbing me about how beautifully I scrub my own photos of any people; Maier, I can't help seeing, has a human subject in just about every photo she took, including a large number of quirky self-portraits.)

A sampling of the photos can be seen here.

Recommended, both for photography buffs (OK, especially for them) and history lovers alike.

Grade: A.


CyberKitten said...

Sound like a gem of a find. Really liked the photographs too.

I'll look out for this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I saw a story about her on CBS Sunday Morning. I can't wait to see the film. Her photos are beautiful.

CyberKitten said...

..and I checked Amazon (of course). There are *books* with her photo's in!

William Stachour said...

I noticed that and am sorely tempted!

dbackdad said...

I had heard about her (and this movie) but I'm still waiting for it to play around here. As far as I can tell, Tucson is the closest theater playing it right now.