“Finding Vivian Maier”

“Finding Vivian Maier”

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Admit it.

You’ve got them.

So do I.

What have we got?

Photos. Lots of photos. Too many photos. All tucked away in albums, envelopes full of negatives and prints from the drug store, trays of slides, boxes in drawers.

Kodak Photo Envelope
(Jay Phagan Flickr Photo)

Suppose during the days long before digital cameras had been invented you had taken just 24 photos (the smallest number on a canister of Kodak 35mm film) each year for 25 years. That would total 600 images.

But you would have undoubtedly shot ten or twenty times that many photos, or 6,000 to 12,000. And if the time span had been 50 years, you’d have created a collection of 12,000 to 24,000 pictures from the past.

But suppose that number was over 100,000, that they were amazing images, and hardly anyone knew that you had taken them?

Then you’d be Vivian Maier, a shutter-clicking nanny from Chicago who is the subject of a new documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier.

In a story that I ran last June, I noted that John Maloof had stumbled upon Maier’s photographic treasure trove at a auction house a couple of years prior to her death in 2009. At that time that I ran that story, Maloof was working on a documentary film about her, Finding Vivian Maier. It has since been released.

Here’s the film’s trailer:


Writing for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis said

“It’s no surprise that Maier is now the subject of a documentary, given the quality of her work, the nominal exoticism of her life and the secrets that still drift around her. She’s a terrific story — part Mary Poppins, part Weegee — who was at once emancipated and in service.”

Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, echoed the question I raised earlier in this story:

Forget the tree that fell in the forest with no one around to hear it. What if someone took more than 100,000 photographs over decades of shooting and absolutely no one was around to see them? And what if they turned out to be really, really good?

“That in a nutshell is the stranger-than-fiction tale behind the gripping documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” a film that asks a pair of equally involving questions: Exactly who was this hidden master and how did her work and her life finally come to light?”

In an interview with NPR’s Linda Wertheimer, Turan said that

“…perhaps the most fascinating thing about this woman is that Vivian Maier remains, finally, elusive. We don’t know a thing about what drove her, or even whether she wanted her images to be seen – or not.”

Finding Vivian Maier opened in Los Angeles and New York at the end of March. It is now playing in theaters across the U.S. I hope to see it soon in one near my home.

You can learn more about the film on its Website, and more about the “elusive” Nanny Maier on the Vivian Maier Website.


April 25, 2014 Update:

I saw Finding Vivian Maier yesterday evening. It is a well-crafted story about an exceptionally talented photographer with a personality that seemed to both perfectly suit her vocation as a nanny and yet at the same time make her entirely unsuitable for that line of work.

My only complaint is that the movie doesn’t present Maier’s life in linear fashion, making it impossible for movie-goers to fit the interviews of members of the families for whom she worked into a timeline that puts both her work as a photographer and as a nanny in perspective. And we don’t get an adequate explanation of why and when her career as a nanny ended, nor why her immense collection of negatives, prints, audio tapes, “home movies,” printed material and other “artifacts” of her life ended up being sent to auction two years before she died.

(For another take on this remarkable and virtually unknown visual artist, read “Vivian Maier, Emerging” by travel writer and essayist, Keith Skinner. Skinner recently won a prestigious Solas award for his story “Inside the Tower.”)

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One Reply to ““Finding Vivian Maier””

  1. I saw the movie and really loved it. I figured that her stuff went up for auction because the storage unit wasn’t being paid for anymore as she grew older and either forgot about it or had no money (two of her former charges were paying her bills at the end of her life). It sounded like she had so much stuff squirreled away, she couldn’t keep track of it as she fell ill. A sad end to a very intriguing life. I recommend the movie!

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