“Finding Vivian Maier” is a documentary film made in 2013 that traces the story of a previously unknown photographer and nanny by the name of Vivian Maier. This documentary is alluring for many reasons – where other documentaries can lack excitement while droning about the background of a person, Vivian’s history is both mysterious and odd. Not only are Maier’s photographs – which number over 100,000 – phenomenal, but the story behind the woman is entirely captivating. This combination makes for an exciting ride that is also muddled by controversy.
After stumbling upon Maier’s photos in an auction, John Maloof proceeded to track down her history while getting many of her photographs developed. After some digging and interviewing of people Maier came in contact with, Maloof discovered countless interesting aspects of Maier’s life. These include a lack of ties to her family, a constant changing of her name and a life of taking photos as she nannied children for a living. It seemed that she lived a solitary life, collecting myriads of newspapers that she refused to let anyone else touch. Maier also had a French accent; linguists in the film argue whether the accent was real or fake – the woman was born in New York City. These are only a few of her interesting quirks.
But there is also a darker side to the story, within the realm of the film and within Maier’s life itself. Maloof reached out to many of the families that Maier nannied for. While stories varied from house to house, a few of the kids she nannied, who are now adults, spoke of physical and emotional abuse by Maier and her obsession with dark newspaper headlines containing murder and assault. As for the problematic side of the film itself, there is little evidence that Maier wanted any of her work to be publicized. She showed almost no one her photos, and the majority of her film was undeveloped. From what the people who knew her said, she probably would not have enjoyed the fame and glory that is now shining on her. The documentary does address this issue, but it also claims that the work of Maier is so illuminating toward human struggles and interactions that it is hard to let it sit undiscovered. I must admit that I agree with this – her breath-taking work exposes an unfiltered factuality about the world.
Many museums have not agreed to accept Maier’s work, primarily because she did not develop it herself. In other settings, shows containing her photography have been a massive hit. While I do not feel qualified or entitled to comment on how I feel about the sudden fame of this hidden woman, I do recommend that you check out the movie or at least look at some of her photographs online. They are striking, and this documentary illuminates the fascinating tale behind it all.