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‘Vivian Maier’ searches for meaning, connection

“Finding Vivian Maier” (2014). Directors: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Screenplay and Story: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Web site. Trailer.

It’s mystifying how someone with profound aesthetic insights and artistic sensibilities could also remain a virtual unknown, especially given the prolific nature of her work. But, then, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if the creator of those pieces intentionally commits to shielding them from public view. Indeed, how is it that someone so incredibly talented would purposely choose to keep her work a secret? That’s the conundrum raised in the fascinating new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.”

While working on a book about the Chicago neighborhood where he grew up, photographer John Maloof searched for historic images to accompany the text. During the course of that search, he stumbled upon a collection of old negatives at a public auction house. The collection only cost him several hundred dollars, but what he (and the world) got for such a modest investment was an invaluable treasure.

In poring over the trunk of photographic images he purchased, Maloof found more than 100,000 negatives covering an array of subjects. Many of the pictures were exquisite depictions of everyday life, shot in both black and white and color throughout many of Chicago’s neighborhoods during the second half of the 20th Century. But how, he wondered, had these beautiful images gone undiscovered?

The photos turned out to be the works of an amateur shutterbug named Vivian Maier (1926-2009). Maloof had never heard of Maier, nor was he able to find out anything about her through an Internet search. His curiosity was naturally piqued.

Maloof conducted further research by going through some of Maier’s other possessions that were included in his auction house purchase. Through that investigation, Maloof learned that Maier had been a nanny and housekeeper to a number of families on Chicago’s affluent North Shore, including former TV talk show host Phil Donahue. He began contacting the families for whom she had worked and slowly pieced together a profile of a gifted but enigmatic recluse.

Maloof was hoping that his research would help to explain the motivation for Maier’s art. Was she a street photographer? A citizen journalist? An artist in training who did not know how to market her work? Or was she something else entirely?

Maloof’s investigation painted a portrait of an extremely private – almost xenophobic – person whose life was characterized by sweeping contradictions and unexplained motives. In addition to her negatives, Maloof discovered trunks full of undeveloped film, as well as numerous 8-millimeter movies and audiocassette recordings. Besides her street photography (visible at www.vivianmaier.com), Maier was prolific at snapping self-portraits and documenting her world travels, including visits to her family’s ancestral home in rural France. But, despite Maloof’s diligence in attempting to learn about his subject, many aspects of Maier’s persona and the reasons behind her work remain a puzzle.

As a consequence, “Finding Vivian Maier” is as much a film about unraveling a mystery as it is about showcasing a little-known artist’s work. It’s an intimate search for meaning and connection, one that ultimately involves the artist, the filmmakers and the audience.

As someone who had virtually no family and few friends, it’s not surprising that Maier would seek to consciously create connection – in almost any way possible – to alleviate the loneliness in her life. Despite the inherent nature of this quality in the fabric of reality, Maier seemed to have difficulty with it and sought, in her own way, to introduce it into her life.

For example, Maier’s work as a nanny brought her into direct contact with families, the very type of social unit that was absent from her own life and background. And her work as a street photographer, depicting even the most ordinary aspects of everyday existence, provided her with an artistic connection to elements of daily life, even if only vicariously. Yet her unwillingness to more actively engage that sense of connection prevented her from greater participation in the web of life. Her reluctance to engage it may also help to explain why she kept her life and her art so private, not letting in others to see who she was and what she was doing.

Maier’s working class background also appears to have influenced her art. She faithfully depicted a world from which she believed she came, thus giving expression to those aspects of life that might not otherwise garner recognition. But her hesitance to commercialize her works, again, kept them from being seen by the world until their “accidental” discovery after her death. Her belief that working class folk are meant to make certain kinds of contributions to life (such as the toil of hard work) and not meant to make other kinds (such as artistic accomplishments) would seem to belie her reasoning for not pursuing commercialization of her photography, a belief that manifested directly in the existence she experienced.

There’s also the possibility that the simple act of creating for its own sake – the joy and power of creation – is what drove her. Perhaps she pursued her art simply because she enjoyed it and didn’t really care what came of it. This is the motivation behind the works of many conscious creators, and, for them, that’s enough. Maybe that was true for Vivian Maier as well. And, thanks to Maloof’s discovery, we can now share in the product of that joy ourselves.

Vivian Maier’s story may not seem like interesting fare for a documentary film, but nothing could be further from the truth. The picture engages on every level from start to finish, telling a fascinating story and doing it in a way that utterly captivates. Viewers will be mesmerized by the mystery as it unfolds, all the while treated to an array of gorgeous imagery.

Comprehending the motivations for doing what we do is often difficult for us, let alone those who are watching us from the sidelines and trying to understand. “Finding Vivian Maier” provides us with a captivating exploration of this subject from a unique individual’s perspective. We might not “find” Vivian through this cinematic odyssey, but perhaps her story will help us to better connect with our own inner being – and find out something about ourselves in the process.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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