About halfway through Finding Vivian Maier, a new documentary by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, we meet Bindy Bitterman, an elderly woman who runs an Evanston store named Eureka! Antiques. Bitterman remembers a woman who used to come in regularly and ask to place certain items—knickknacks and tchotchkes, assorted mementos—on hold. The woman declined to provide any contact information. No phone number, no address, and, for a long time, no name. When Bitterman asked her what she did for a living, she replied, “I’m sort of a spy.” She gave the name “Miss V. Smith.”
Like everyone else who interacted with Vivian Maier, Bitterman had no idea what exactly “Miss V.” did. She was a nanny—most people knew that, though through different names. “Vivian,” never “Viv”; “Viv,” never “Vivian”; always “Miss Maier,” which she spelled variously, swapping vowels for different people. She wore a floppy hat and men’s shoes, had a reputation as a Mary Poppins figure, and gave good references. She was also, sort of, a spy. Walking the streets, kids frequently in tow, she photographed what she saw. Children staring into a shop window. A man asleep behind the counter of his newsstand. A cat, dead and flattened in the gutter. She carried her camera wherever she went, and was wildly prolific. In forty years she took over 100,000 pictures.
She never published her work, though, and aside from the handful of commercial developers that she used—when she developed her negatives at all—no one saw her photographs until John Maloof began scanning images online in fall 2009, six months after Maier’s death. Since then, she’s been compared to Helen Levitt and Diane Arbus. Maier may be one of the most popular street photographers in the world right now.
Maloof’s film—which he co-directed and co-wrote with Siskel, a nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel—is aptly titled, for Finding Vivian Maier is as much about Maier herself as it is about Maloof’s “finding” her. This is largely unavoidable. In 2007, Maloof bought a box of Maier’s negatives from an auction house on the Northwest Side. He was working on a book about the history of his neighborhood, Portage Park, and needed historical photos that could accompany the text. None of the negatives worked for the project, but after the book was published Maloof returned to the box and grew obsessed. His ambition became, as he says in the film, “to put Vivian in the history books.” He wants her in museums, and he wants her known.
On screen, Maloof often seems to want the same thing for himself. Shots are framed to draw parallels between him and Maier. We see him setting up a dash cam on his car, and see his face reflected in glass as a voice-over discusses Maier’s own interest in self-portraiture. His own enthusiasm often takes center stage.
But while a better movie may have been made without Maloof’s direction, his presence in the film brings out elements of obsession and compulsion that are central to the story. Till the last years of her life, Maier did not stop taking pictures, and was an obsessive collector of ephemera and mementos. Wherever she lived, her bedroom was piled to the ceiling with newspapers. In addition to photographs, she took 16 mm films and taped audio interviews with strangers, bringing a tape recorder to the grocery store to collect opinions on Watergate. Maloof, for his part, could not stop asking questions about Maier’s life, and the film unfolds as a sort of existential mystery. He takes us to a New York genealogist, a man who says he may have never seen a family tree as convoluted as Maier’s; he leads us on a Google hunt to uncover Maier’s ancestral home, a village in the south of France; he takes us, in the film’s best moments, to the people closest to Maier—the children she looked after, who are now grown up and amazed that their nanny was such a talented photographer.
Still, we cannot know everything. The film wisely abstains from speculation about Maier’s mental state (though it does note suggestions that she suffered from mental illness, especially toward the end of her life, as well as from sexual abuse). Even the film’s central question—why Maier never publicized her work—is never fully answered. Maloof claims a small victory by uncovering a letter from Maier to a French film developer, a man she wanted to work with as a partner for developing and printing her pictures. The arrangement never worked out, though it’s used in the film as evidence that Maier did seek publicity, and would, were she alive, be glad that her work is now finding an audience.
Maier never did make a continued effort to find that audience, though. She kept her negatives locked in her bedroom, and left almost all of them undeveloped. (Maloof, who’s purchased around ninety percent of Maier’s negatives since that first auction in 2007, is still in the process of scanning and developing, though he no longer does the work himself.) She may have thought that publicizing her work would be time spent away from doing what she loved most, the photography itself. More likely, she probably didn’t think about it at all. She was too busy photographing.
Looking at her pictures, she clearly had the ability—rare, especially for someone who walks around with a camera—to make people comfortable. Her subjects, when they’re looking at the camera, do not look staged. Some smile. Others look grim. We learn in the film that Maier typically used a Rolleiflex, a camera with a waist-level viewfinder. Instead of lifting the camera to her eyes to frame a shot, she could hold it steady at her chest or waist, and look straight down to compose the photograph. She could look someone in the eyes, meet their gaze, and—feeling things out from below, focus perhaps already adjusted—take his or her picture without seeming to do anything at all.
The results are beautiful, and sometimes painful. She looks people in the eye—or turns her eye to what’s often overlooked: a doll in a trashcan or a chair saved from a fire, still smoldering on a street corner—sees something, and wants us to see the same thing. Life, or maybe death. Something that doesn’t have a name and carries itself like a secret. It’s hard to make a film about this—about art, that is, and how and why we create it—and Finding Vivian Maier is not that film. It is, however, a fine one for what it is. As Maier’s work is strong enough to stand on its own, her story, twined as it is with Maloof’s, is strong enough to do the same.
Finding Vivian Maier. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Ravine Pictures. 84 minutes. Showing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.