Finding Vivian Maier documentary, exhibition shine light on a late-developing photographer

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She was a strange one, Vivian Maier. Looking at an exhibition selected from the 150,000-odd photographs she left behind when she died, you soon grow to know her long, solemn face reflected in the plate glass windows and chrome hubcaps of Chicago and New York, those mannish hands around the Rolleiflex camera held against her waist and, in the vast majority of the photographs where she is not part of the subject, the steely eye she brings to passers-by, defiant children, market workers, street-dwellers and tourists in Bermuda shorts: the whole panoply of post-war American urban life.

Nobody saw her that way, however, when she was alive.

Vivian Maier was born in New York in 1926 and spent her whole working life as a nanny. Nobody knew she took pictures: she always kept her rooms locked, stuffed full of hoarded newspapers and old tins along with the pictures, and was apparently a determined solitary. She took the pictures during the afternoons, when she took her charges on long walks; her employers just thought she believed in exercise.

It was only after her death in 2009 that her work came to light, when John Maloof, a real-estate agent and local history buff, bid at auction for one of several job lots of photographs of Chicago he hoped he might be able to use as illustrations in a book he was writing. Once home, he remembers, he realised they wouldn’t be relevant and put them in the wardrobe. Six months later he looked at them again and was somehow inspired; he bought a camera. “And it was in becoming more of a photographer that I realised the work was better than I had realised,” he says.

So enthused was he, in fact, that he pursued the other buyers at the original auction, recovered almost all of her work and began putting selections online. To his surprise, Vivian Maier went viral. “And ever since, the media has come to me. I couldn’t put a lid on it if I wanted to.”

It is a process documented in the invigorating documentary Finding Vivian Maier, directed at Maloof’s invitation by Charlie Siskel, who cut his documentary teeth working for Michael Moore.

“I thought it could be a great film, but to do it as a kind of detective story,” says Siskel.

A call from a former employer led Maloof to two stuffed storage units full of her hoarded chattels and personal papers, including numerous business cards. He and Siskel started calling every number they could find.

Meanwhile, the pictures can speak for themselves. I see about 200 of them in a beautiful old cathedral cloister in Ghent, Belgium, which gives a contemplative edge to their skyscraper modernism. The oldest dates from 1952, when poor Americans looked stunted rather than bloated, when a drugstore hoarding could promise “vaccines and biologicals” and a poster could suggest that Budweiser is the ideal complement “to fine food”. Shining surfaces and rich textures caught her eye: she liked the smoothness of balloons and the plush of a fur coat, especially if there was a dead fox head hanging from it somewhere.

The question of whether knowing about her life – or even how little it is possible to know of her, given her secrecy – affects the way we look at this work is a thorny one. Louise Neri is the creative associate for visual arts for the Melbourne Festival, which will show an expanded version of the Ghent exhibition alongside a separate exhibition of other photographers’ responses to her work at the Centre for Contemporary Photography. She readily acknowledges that the current overwhelming interest in biography, often of the most banal kind, has meant that artists have seen their work turned into narrative. “Maier in a way is a dream come true, because these days there is very little that is undiscovered,” says Neri.

For the film, Siskel and Maloof collected a bizarrely contradictory collection of stories, rumours and reminiscences, including the story of a middle-aged woman who remembers Maier physically abusing her. There were certainly a good many pictures among her street shots of children in tears. Even Charlie Siskel, however, says there are aspects of Maier’s life he is content not to understand. “In some way the film explores this need we feel as storytellers to pin down our subject. At some point I think it was liberating to stand over this mountain of material and say, ‘Maybe we don’t have to call every number’. Because we weren’t making an exhaustive biopic of Vivian Maier we didn’t have to shine a light into every dark corner of Vivian Maier’s life.”

Such attention raises the question of her legacy. Neri says the work has been so recently circulated that it hasn’t had time to leave anything behind. “But I’m interested in her as an inspirational figure for the ordinary person,” she says. “Digital photography is virtually without cost and many, many people have enormous stored archives of images and are swapping then on social media all the time. I think she is a kind of analogue precedent for this potential, and if she had been born into our time, perhaps she would be a more socialised person. She would have Facebook friends. She might have a huge following, in fact. It’s a real then-and-now story.”

“You can’t separate the art from the artist,” says Siskel. “They come together as one package. Her work is even more incredible in that she made sacrifices that show really what it takes to be an artist. Sure, there are artists with trust funds, but it’s not so incredible that Vivian would have had to earn her living as a nanny. What is surprising is that she would be able to make her work for decades without the benefit of a patron, without the benefit of a collaborator, without being part of any kind of artistic community and getting feedback from friends – or indeed any feedback from the public.”

The big question about Maier is why she kept her work secret. Siskel, who grew up in the well-heeled Chicago suburbs where Maier worked, suspects that the former employers who remember her as “a very private person” may simply not have taken much notice of her: she was “the help”.

“When they say that Vivian would have hated this, that she would not have wanted her work on display, I’m not sure they are the most reliable narrators. She did have her work printed in France as landscape postcards and I think she made other attempts to get work printed.”

She didn’t have a dark room, he says.Sometimes she just left the film in the canisters, but she never stopped taking pictures.

“That for me is what is ultimately heroic – and more heroic and more romantic than the fairytale version of her story as a tortured outsider artist, which is a label I hate,” Siskel says. “Because I think when you look at the work, there is nothing ‘outside’ about it: for me, it is canonical 20th-century photography.

“So it’s not that she was too good for an audience, but that she was so committed to the work she continued to do it without the benefit of an audience of any kind. And of course that is what makes it a story with a redemptive ending, although sadly that did not come in her lifetime. The work has found its audience now.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.