At the beginning of the Finding Vivian Maier, numerous friends, relatives, and former employers of the recently discovered Chicago street photographer and nanny try to describe her succinctly: she’s eccentric, bold, private, paradoxical. Above all, say friends, if she were alive, she would never have allowed this cinematic exposition of her life.
By the end of the documentary, from directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, we still don’t know much more about the mysterious Maier than those surface descriptions. But we also know her work—and her work speaks for itself. Her candid photos of mid-century city street scenes are incredible.
All photos by Vivian Maier.
For decades, Maier worked as a nanny around the Midwest and New York. As she led children on outings around their hometowns, she always carried a Rolleiflex camera around her neck, snapping photos of workers, kids, police, and trashcans alike. She was essentially a self-employed journalist of the era and once described herself to a stranger as a “sort of a spy”; she was fiercely protective of her privacy, often giving out fake names. Over the course of her life taking care of kids and constantly shooting photos, she amassed over 100,000 negatives and undeveloped film rolls, which she piled in towering boxes that filled her small quarters. She never showed her photos to a soul. When she died in 2009, John Maloof unwittingly bought her life’s work at a storage unit auction. Once he saw what he’d stumbled upon, Maloof set out to uncover this photographer’s life and get her mainstream attention and respect.
Part of why Vivian Maier was seen as such an enigma in life is because she boldly flouted gender norms: she lived on the edge of society, poked her camera even further into its fringes, and apparently had little desire to fit in. People immediately saw her as a bit of an oddball for being a woman who lived the life of a loner; she had no apparent interest in romance or bearing children of her own. Maier was anti-social by nature, preferring to work on her art alone, and was a cynic. Her photos show an acute alertness to everyday human tragedy and one of her employers said Maier loved news stories that “revealed the folly of humanity.” These traits might not be as noteworthy in a man, but for a woman working as a nanny, people saw her as downright bizarre. It’s clear that she became more and more of an outsider later in life as she dealt with mental illness—it seems likely she was a hoarder, as an employer recalls how she stored so many stacks and stacks of newspaper in her room that they left only a small pathway of floor.
One aspect of Maier’s life that the film’s interviewees struggle to explain is why she continued to work as a nanny her entire life. Director Maloof—an enthusiastic biographer who appears so frequently in the film that his commentary becomes rather grating—often notes how shocking it is that a nanny could have such creative talent and wonders why someone who could have likely gained wide commercial success would continue to work as a humble caretaker. As a neighbor reflects, “It must have been galling to be a maid.” But that perspective is rooted in the notion that being a nanny is inherently terrible work. By all accounts, it seems that Maier liked her chosen profession. She worked for some time in a factory, but switched to being a nanny because the job gave her the chance to be outside and explore the world with her camera around her neck. Though our society does not respect childcare workers on the same level as people with glamorous artistic careers, Maier was never one for glamour—and she certainly appreciated the economic stability of her job. Toward the end of the film, an observant former charge seems to sum up Maier best: “She was supposed to be downtrodden, but she didn’t have these standards of success that other people had. She lived the life she wanted.”
Though Maier herself would have hated it, the film about her life and work is engaging from beginning to end. Finding Vivian Maier never does not reveal much about the inner life of the woman at the center of the story, but it does a solid job of its more important mission: bringing Maier’s rarely seen work to light.
Watch the trailer for Finding Vivian Maier: