It was several years ago now that the street photography of Vivian Maier swept social media users into great curiosity. Her secret cache concentrating over 100 thousand pictures, from the 50’s through the 80’s, had been uncovered by an equally obscure person, John Maloof. He built a website under the posthumous premise that he had verified her identity by tracking an obscured trail. Beyond keeping to herself rather strictly, she often used different spellings of her name, as if she were a spy.
Maier produced films, audio cassette recordings, newspapers, scrapbooks, and knick knacks, spanning her adult life. She was a journalist who didn’t want to share. She worked as a nanny for most of her life. On outings with the kids — from family to family — the camera would hang from her neck. While out, she’d drag home junk for her weighty collection. She was a junk collector.
There is synchronicity there. Maloof grew up with a family of junk collectors and resellers. His life trajectory brought him to just another auction where he discovered the aloof photographer’s box of photos. He had no idea the pile he started with would grow exponentially. He just liked her photos.
I cannot decide if Maier wanted her own work to be recognized. If she did, it was perhaps the most brilliant way of making it in the history of photography. Her street images honor the average person, like the worker, the grunt, the disabled, and children, while speaking to the irony of life. Her work was discovered by some trash picker who saw something. He revealed someone who was not average but very special and brushed off as nutty. The expression to honor common people could not have played out better.
Maloof cherishes her deeply, but the film takes us a little bit away from her and toward him. I haven’t read his book or kept up with his site, perhaps he always wrapped himself up in it. But I think this is the primary drawback. While he does turn every stone to reveal the charming and disturbing aspects of her character, it turns around back to the premise at the start which comes off as a pitch to be bought out by the museums. The overall execution of this documentary holds a high bar, but Maloof doesn’t fully grasp the moral of his own story.
Finding Vivian Maier is out now on Netflix.