Imagine you are a private person, very private. You have a lot of stuff. You are a bit of a loner and don’t have close family. Imagine you had a hobby that meant a lot to you, but you kept it to yourself. A lot of this isn’t hard for many people to imagine.
Now imagine that after your death, all of your stuff was put up for auction, your storage locker cleaned out, with strangers walking away with random boxes of your things, including the things you created from your hobby. But what you didn’t know (or maybe you did), the things your created were really really good. Now imagine a complete stranger stumbling upon your talent, then scrambling to find the rest of your things that may have ended up in others’ hands. This total stranger wants to piece together everything about you, based on what you left behind, and based on interviews with people who may (or may not) have know you well. What sort of story would emerge?
This is the basis of Finding Vivian Maier, an absolutely fascinating—if voyeuristic, and maybe even a little bit melancholy—portrayal of a woman, who happened to be an amazing photographer. Her (few) friends, employers, and neighbors knew little about her, but she left an astonishing amount of negatives, undeveloped film, and movie reels that she had amassed over her lifetime as… a nanny. Before you can say, “How sad!”, it is clear that her job choice allowed her the flexibility to interact with many people, and also be a bit of a nomad, which played into her skill as a “street photographer”. And her photographs are pretty darn amazing.
Renowned professional photographers like Mary Ellen Mark are asked to weigh in on Maier’s photos, and all agree that she had a talent that, if she was known, would have been held up with the greats of 20th century photographers. Instead, many formal museums and galleries are hesitant to show her work, because she was not “established” in the photography scene in her lifetime.
In the meantime, John Maloof, the young man who stumbled across a box of her negatives at an auction, is the one who now “owns” Maier’s work. He started scanning her photos and posting them on his blog, where they got an avalanche of reaction. His persistence on getting her work seen has paid off, with showings around the world. But then again, take a step back… this woman had hundreds of thousands of photos she took over her lifetime and no one knew. Now a stranger (no matter how well-meaning) is profiting off of her work.
One woman, who considered herself a friend of Vivian’s for 30 years, blatantly says that Maier would have been horrified at the idea of a film being made about her, and her lifetime of “stuff” being pored through and analyzed, much less displayed in art galleries. Finding Vivian Maier ends up being a multi-layered documentary that sticks in your craw. It works as a detective story about a private person, as a portrayal of an artist and her work, and as a thought-provoking analysis of the right to privacy after death. One thing is for sure: Vivian Maier is probably shaking her nanny-fist at the whole thing from her grave.