Why does an artist create, and to whom does his or her work ultimately belong? These are the central questions posed by the fascinating new documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, which uncovers the remarkable story of an extremely prolific photographer who never shared her work while she was alive.
While it’s not totally unheard of for artists to refuse to publish their work (see: Salinger, J.D.), what makes Vivian Maier’s story so compelling is her complete anonymity in the art world prior to her death, and the questions raised by her extreme secrecy.
Maier worked as a nanny for several families in the Chicago suburbs in ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, while also moonlighting as a street photographer. Despite her undeniable talent, Maier never showed her photographs to anyone. The film traces director John Maloof’s discovery of Maier’s work in a public auction, his subsequent efforts to share her photographs with the world, and his attempt to solve the mystery of who Vivian Maier was.
This exploration dives into Maier’s life story (perhaps too deeply at times) in an effort to understand not only what drove her to take such spectacular photographs, but also why she would choose to keep them boxed in an attic.
What makes her story especially puzzling is that there is a real sense of humanity in Maier’s portraits, leading one to assume she had a deep understanding of the people around her, even though by most accounts she could be socially awkward and reclusive.
One could make the argument that, because Maloof now owns over 100,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, he stands to gain financially from any rise in value of her photographs that may come from the film. However, the genuine sense of stewardship Maloof seems to show for Maier’s work shines through in the movie, and it appears that he is approaching the project with the best intentions.
If there’s a big takeaway from Finding Vivian Maier, it’s that anyone can be creative. Why should we be surprised that a nanny was able to produce some of the most compelling portraits of the past half-decade? In a strange way, Maloof himself is an example of that creative spirit. He just happened to stumble upon Maier’s work while looking for some photographs to use for a history project. But he was so touched by her work that he decided to create a feature-length documentary to tell her story.
What makes Maoof different, however, is that he chose to share his work with the world. Whether she was held back by her own personal demons, a fear of failure, or just an extreme sense of ownership, Maier never made that choice. It was ultimately her choice to make, but one hopes that other aspiring artists feel supported and confident enough that they may choose differently.