|Self-portrait, by Vivian Maier|
The story of John Maloof's discovery of the photographic opus of Vivian Maier has now become quite well-known. Needing some illustrative pictures for a history book on the Portage Park area of Chicago, Maloof bought the majority of the collection at an auction house across the street from where he lived. Not finding them useful for his project, he set them to one side for a while, and then came back to them later. While investigating her he discovered that Maier had just died. These are some of the details uncovered in Maloof's documentary (made with Charlie Siskel) Finding Vivian Maier.
There is much to like about this film, which seems to combine the filmmaking expertise of Charlie Siskel with the passion of John Maloof. Maloof has clearly done more than anyone to understand this elusive artist, and done so with much respect and care. The documentary is a loving tribute, even while it examines darker evidence of her life as a nanny. The photographs are given to us with juxtaposition against other great photographers, perhaps to indicate a kind of influence. I'm not sure. The documentary is compelling and gripping, and ultimately moving.
But it also left me with many questions which I felt the documentary skirted; I felt it could have been more transparent than it was. The film tells us at the end that Maier was supported in her last years by two of the children she nannied, who not only bought her an apartment but paid her bills. Why aren't they in the film? At the same time, we hear that she was dumpster diving and eating food out of a can before she died; why did the support run out? Maloof says in the film that he bought up the other Maier items purchased by others at the original auction, but doesn't tell us that one of those original buyers was actually the first to post her work online, or that he didn't quite buy up everything: a Chicago art dealer owns about ten percent of the collection.
Through his persistent research, Maloof uncovers the French family of Maier, and the village where her relatives owned property; however, he doesn't share with us any other information about her background which he must have received some insights on. The film dwells (a bit sensationally) on the possibility of abuse in Maier's background as part of explaining that in her more than forty years as a nanny, she clearly was a damaging one at times. But it doesn't do so with much depth - perhaps because there are no answers available. Maloof also doesn't comment on the fact that Maier was alive for two years after he found the photographs in 2007. These are just the accidents of fate, but it deserved a bit of reflection on that loss - on the possibility that if he'd pursued her sooner, he might have found her while she was alive.
There are many implicit tragedies in the story and one is that the art world is taking its time recognizing Maier, but not because she doesn't merit their attention. It's complex. Maier did not print her own work (or did so unsuccessfully), so it is hard to know how to curate her as an artist. I appreciate this problem. My own brother is a landscape and portrait photographer who prints his own work with tremendous detail and care. It is part of who he is as an artist. It must be hard to know how to share the work with others without implicit instructions. However, it is so clearly deserving of some sort of special understanding. Attention from people like Mary Ellen Mark, whose spontaneous and genuine responses to the photographs in the film should be enough to roll the ball forward, but it is stalled. Is that because Maloof has gone ahead and exhibited her himself (in cooperation with small private galleries in various cities)? Calling himself her curator? It is hard to be critical of this obviously passionate collector whose deep love and respect for Maier have brought her the attention she has. But by his own admission, he brings no skills to this enormous task, nor does he seem to be seeking out the assistance of those who do have those skills. Why? If he is wanting to serve her work, if that is his biggest goal, then why hasn't he asked for help with that? These were the questions I was left with as I walked the rainy street afterward.
In the end, despite these unsettling questions, what moved me most was the work of Maier itself (which illustrate this review). They reveal more about others than she can say about herself, perhaps, but that was her choice. Melancholic and stark, revealing and mysterious, haunted by shadows and by lives torn from what they should have been, they reveal an artist who was most at home when standing among her subjects. Looking them in the eye.