Writing on photography

Review – Finding Vivian Maier

From time to time as a writer you feel like you’ve said all you want to say about a particular person or subject. Sometimes you manage to move on, but at other times you can’t quite resist having another look, perhaps because the subject is so intriguing, invigorating, or even just enraging. Despite the feeling that I had already said most of what I wanted to say about the rediscovered work of Vivian Maier (see here), the sense that there might be something more to learn led me to watch the new feature length documentary about her. Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of director/producer John Maloof’s discovery of a cache of extraordinary photographs at an auction, the lifetime’s work of a reclusive Chicago nanny who spent much of her spare time photographing the city streets with a remarkably acute eye.

The film sets out to unravel more of Maier’s story, through interviews with some of those who knew her, a certain amount of primary research, and also quite a bit of straight to camera monologuing by Maloof. The result is a movie which offers some interesting additions to the Vivian Maier story, but which I also found pretty frustrating to watch. Maloof certainly unearths some intriguing insights, including new discoveries about her background (my favourite being the enticing suggestion that her French accent was completely put on) and a fleshing out of her final years, alone and increasingly eccentric and erratic.

What I found frustrating about the film though was that the film-makers often steadfastly refused to join apparently connected bits of information together in the way that you expect from a good documentary. At one point Maloof states his desire to know the reasons for Maier’s intensive interest in photographing peripherial or marginalised people and places, and then almost in the same breath notes that she was a compulsive hoarder, two details which seem connected but which are never really explored in relation to each other. This happens a few times and after a bit it feels like you are watching a detective movie with a hyperactive protagonist who can’t stay focused on the facts in front of him (this sense is heightened a little further by the rather frenetic Elfman-esque musical score).

At other times there are what feel like rather illogical leaps of reasoning made from scant evidence. Half way through the film a letter emerges which suggests Maier might have contacted a French printer about printing her photographs. Maloof seizes on it as evidence that Maier did intend to show her work publicly, but the wording of the letter, at least as it was repeated in the film, seemed highly ambiguous. I sense Maloof might have felt the ambiguities in the letter were less important than the fact that it offered a potential validation of his publicisation of this reclusive photographers work, something several of his interviewees suggest Maier would have probably hated. At one point in the film Maloof himself professes a little sense of guilt for it, although not long before a section which shows him signing prints made from Maier’s negatives, ready for sale.

Indeed much of the film has a sense of someone trying to make the facts fit the story they want to tell, rather than using the facts to reconstitute a story. It’s notable that nowhere in the film is mention made of the other collectors who own sizeable chunks of Maier’s creative output, they simply don’t figure into Maloof’s narrative, presumably because they’re the competition. This is a problem mainly because gradually the whole project starts to feel doubtful, it begins to feel difficult to take any part of the movie at face value. The story behind Finding Vivian Maier is undeniably gripping story, and the film is well put together, but I think that if you come to it with any more than a casual eye then you may find as I did that it leaves you with more questions than answers.

Find Vivian Maier is in cinemas now.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography