Finding Vivian Maier: A new doc tries to unearth clues about the life of a mysterious street photographer

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
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Self Portrait (Photograph by Vivian Maier)

Four years ago, Vivian Maier was a literal unknown, a reclusive former nanny whose name had been printed in the paper only when a trio of brothers she used to care for paid to run her obituary in the Chicago Tribune.

Maier had died at age 83 in April 2009, confined to a nursing home after she had slipped on ice and hit her head the year before. She had no money, no family and few friends. And even to the dozens of kids and families whom she had helped care for during a half-century as a nanny, she had been an eccentric mystery, memorable in part by the old Rolleiflex camera she carried everywhere she went.

But it turns out Maier wasn’t just “Mary Poppins with a camera,” as one of her charges later described her. When she died, Maier left behind 3,000 prints, more than 100,000 negatives and about 700 rolls of undeveloped film — a prolific body of work that no one had ever seen.

Much of that work ended up in the hands of John Maloof, a young Chicago historian who paid $400 for a box of Maier’s negatives and photos in 2007 when the contents of storage lockers she had been renting were put up for auction when she stopped paying rent.

“The photos looked interesting so I took a chance thinking there might be something I could use,” recalled Maloof, who was looking for vintage photos of Chicago for a book he was writing.

But it wasn’t until early 2009 that he examined Maier’s work again and realized he might have something special. There were hundreds of extraordinary black-and-white images of classic street life, documenting both the elegant and the gritty sides of urban living. The work included snapshots of people from all walks of life, from the doyennes of New York’s Fifth Avenue with their fancy hats and fox fur stoles to the homeless and the lost of Chicago’s Skid Row.

Maloof wondered who had taken the photos. Searching through a box of Maier’s things, he found her name on an envelope and searched her name on Google. There was only one hit: her obituary, which had run only days before.

Unsure of how to move forward, he uploaded some of Maier’s photos online and posted a message on a street photography forum on Flickr asking if people thought the work was worthy of a book or an exhibition and seeking advice on what he should do with the photos. Maier’s images went viral, and soon she was an unsung star of the photography world, with critics comparing her work to legendary street photographers like Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.

“That’s when I became really obsessed,” Maloof said. “Who was Vivian Maier? And why had she taken all of these photos? And why had she never shown them to anyone?”

That obsession is the driving storyline behind a new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which opens Nov. 17 in New York as part of the DOC NYC film festival and opens nationwide Mar. 14. The film, which is directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, follows Maloof as he tries to uncover the mysterious photographer’s backstory while at the same time trying to give her the fame that escaped her during her life.

The film coincides with a new book, “Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits," which features 60 previously unpublished images that Maier took of herself. Among the photos are spontaneous street images of Maier’s shadow cast over subjects like a sunbather on the beach or a woman’s legs. But there are also photographs that required careful framing, including several of her reflected in glass shop windows and in the mirror being moved by a man on the street.

While the images offer more clues to Maier’s talent and her style, they are sure to fuel more interest in the lingering mystery about her life and her motivations. The film does its best to fill in some of those blanks, but some questions about Maier’s life might never be answered because of her own obsession about secrecy.

Starting in late 2009, Maloof says he became “almost compulsive” in investigating Maier and her photos. He tracked down other boxes from the auction and bought them — meticulously going through hundreds of receipts and pieces of mail trying to find old friends and acquaintances. It was not an easy task: Maier, he found, was so secretive that she had sometimes used aliases even for the most basic things, like developing her film. In the end, he found 90 people who had known her in some way — including several of the families she had worked for.

Her former charges describe her as an eccentric caregiver who dressed in men’s clothes and took them on urban adventures to places kids rarely went, including gritty parts of town and a slaughterhouse in Chicago.

But there are also hints of a darker side, as some of her now-grown charges speak on camera about how Maier bullied them and seemed to grow more and more emotionally unstable in the latter part of her life.

Many of those interviewed in the film conclude that something traumatic happened to Maier to make her so guarded — but because she shared so few personal details with the people that knew her, no one is sure quite what.

Maloof traces Maier’s history to New York, where she was born to a French mother and an Austrian father who apparently abandoned the family after she was born. She had family in France, where she spent part of her youth, but Maier appears to have completely cut them off — choosing to live her life alone, except for the families she cared for. And that’s why he guesses she never shared her photography with anyone: It was the one thing she had that was truly hers.

“She was so guarded and paranoid and private. She never let anybody get close to her. She went by aliases. She disguised herself with her clothes. She never had a love life. She never had kids. She didn’t have any family that she kept in contact with at all,” Maloof said. “The only thing she really had was her photography … and she was probably too afraid of getting negative criticism or rejection.”

To date, the public has seen only between 200 and 400 of the photos Maier took, and there is an archive of tens of thousands more that have yet to be printed. An individual picture now commands a price of at least $1,500 a piece — and sometimes much more. That’s far more than what Maloof paid for his entire lot — but he insists he’s not getting rich off Maier.

“People think I am making millions of dollars, but I am not. To keep this archive up and running is so expensive that we don’t even really make any money,” Maloof said.

Four years ago, Maloof reached out to several museums looking for help in setting up Maier’s archive and researching her life, but all refused. And even in spite of incredible interest in Maier’s photos and her life, the art world has still been reserved in its response to her work — something Maloof hopes will be changed by the documentary and the release of more of her images.

“She deserves to be considered among the greatest of street photographers, because she was,” Maloof said. “She was amazing.”

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