"}
Film

Finding Vivian Maier

A portrait of an enigma

Thursday, April 17, 2014

When Vivian Maier, who worked most of her life as a nanny in the tony suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore, died in 2009 at the age of 83, a storage facility auctioned off her voluminous personal effects. John Maloof, a 26-year-old amateur historian, purchased a box of undeveloped negatives of hers, then set them aside after a cursory look-see. Two years later, he revisited the trove and realized Maier’s work was as good as anything by Weegee, Helen Levitt, or Dorothea Lange.

Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, is a great detective story. How could it be that someone so gifted could limit herself mostly to nannydom all those years? And why did she keep her work hidden away, unexposed even to herself?

As one might imagine, Maloof felt compelled to get answers. Buying up whatever else of Maier’s he was able to locate—and she was a major hoarder, as it turns out—he was able to track down close to a hundred people who knew Maier, including many of the children she cared for, and their parents. One of her employers, for a brief time, was single dad Phil Donahue, who, like the others, is interviewed in the film at length.

In the pre-Internet era, Maier’s trail might have dead-ended. Even so, when Maloof Googled her, nothing came up. But because Maloof is something of a world-class obsessive, he stayed with the story and rooted out as much as anybody will probably ever know about Maier. If the movie, in a sense, is as much about Maloof as it is about Maier, so be it. Their stories, by necessity, are twinned. But behind it all is Maloof’s simple declaration: “I just wanted people to see this marvelous work.”

We don’t have to take his word for its quality. He lavishes us with her photos, and one after the other is a classic, especially the ones shot in the street of children and the homeless and the dispossessed. Maier, not surprisingly, was an outsider herself, even though she worked most of her life in the bourgeois precincts of suburbia. Unmarried and childless, and reputedly fearful of men, she was born in New York but raised in France with her French mother and Austrian father (who ditched the family early on). Maier moved to Manhattan in her mid-20s and worked in a sweatshop before working on and off as a nanny in Chicago beginning in the mid-1950s.

Most of her photos (which have been collected in a book by Maloof and exhibited widely as a result of his efforts) were taken with her little kids in tow, in the stockyards, on the streets, all over the city. She used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera, which, as the celebrated photographer (and Maier enthusiast) Joel Meyerowitz notes, allows its user to unobtrusively capture its subjects—the perfect instrument for an artist as fiercely secretive as Maier. (She rarely gave out her real name to people, often calling herself “V. Smith.”)

Maier’s relations with her employers and their children elicit contradictory responses. A few of the grown-up kids speak of a dark side and violent outbursts; others so revered her that, in her later years, when she was close to homeless, they paid for her rent and storage. It’s likely that Maier became a nanny in part because she was trying to capture a happy childhood she never experienced for herself. But amateur psychologizing doesn’t really resolve her mystery; in some ways, the more we learn about her, the greater the enigma.

Her story seems especially enigmatic because in the modern age we are so inured to the culture of celebrity that it seems impossible to imagine anyone disdaining it. Maier is a great artist who discounted adulation entirely. Her life was a masquerade; her genius, quite literally, was unexposed.

SVCR Don McLean
More Film...
Going for Gold
Making time with Oscar

People think the most wonderful time of the year is Christmas, but they are misguided. Truly the most wonderful time of the year is Oscar season, that glorious couple of months when movie houses are flooded with all of the year’s finest films, we all become amateur movie critics and the…

more »
Human Rights
New documentary focuses human rights film festival

For 17 years, the Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival has explored far corners of the world, documenting injustice and hardship, but always with a bittersweet tang that the human spirit will endure and in some cases triumph. The festival’s overarching message is that we must approach…

more »
Neruda
Of history and legend

The conflicting forces that shape the Chilean national identity have been an overarching theme in the work of Pablo Larrain, whether it’s the festering chaos and violence of the Pinochet regime in Tony Manero, Post Mortem, and No, or the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic church in The…

more »
Events
Today
KMRE broadcaster receives citizen journalism award

5:00pm

17th annual Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival

10:00am|Whatcom County

New documentary focuses human rights film festival

7:52pm

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Into the Woods

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Up the Down Staircase

7:30pm|Squalicum High School

Ubu Roi

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Wild Things

9:30am|Interurban Trail

Spanish Storytime

10:30am|Lynden Library

Valley Writers

1:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Magnolia Street and Cornwall Avenue

Weird Washington

5:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Friday Night Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Whatcom Humane Society Wine Social

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

PhotoLUSH 2017

6:00pm|Lairmont Manor

Friday Night Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Always…Patsy Cline

7:00pm|Conway Muse

And I Remember

7:00pm|Village Books

King John

7:30pm|Philip Tarro Theatre

International Guitar Night

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

James Hunter Six

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Borealis Wind Quintet

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

Cupid's Arrow Final Weekend

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

MBT Rovers Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Tomorrow
KMRE broadcaster receives citizen journalism award

5:00pm

17th annual Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival

10:00am|Whatcom County

New documentary focuses human rights film festival

7:52pm

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Up the Down Staircase

7:30pm|Squalicum High School

Ubu Roi

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Into the Woods

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Weird Washington

5:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

PhotoLUSH 2017

6:00pm|Lairmont Manor

Always…Patsy Cline

7:00pm|Conway Muse

King John

7:30pm|Philip Tarro Theatre

Cupid's Arrow Final Weekend

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Snow Play Day and Survival Skills

8:00am|Mt. Baker Ski Area

Children's Literature Conference

9:00am|Performing Arts Center

What's New in Organic Gardening

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Plant Society Ramble

9:30am|Maple Creek Loop

UFO Primer

10:00am|Syre Hall

FiberFest 2017

10:00am|La Conner Middle/High School

Intro to Ancestry

10:00am|Ferndale Library

Winter Trail Run Series

10:00am|BBMX Park

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Smelt Run

10:00am|La Conner Middle School

Kids Can Cook

11:00am|Community Food Co-op

Washington Beer Open House

12:00pm|Whatcom and Skagit counties

An all-season outdoor expo

1:00pm

Tax Help

1:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Weird Washington

1:00pm|Lynden Library

Raising Pigs

1:30pm|Cloud Mountain Farm Center

Peace Corps Revisited

3:00pm|Lynden Library

Geology Underfoot

3:00pm|Deming Library

Starry Night Chamber Orchestra

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Whatcom Writes

4:00pm|Village Books

Wishes for Our Stars Gala

5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Varsity Vocals

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Comedy Fundraiser

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Boating Center Fundraiser

7:00pm|Elks Club

Light in the Night Gala

7:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Wetzel's World

7:30pm|Lummi Island Library

Bayshore Symphony Winter Concert

7:30pm|Central Lutheran Church

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books
Sunday
KMRE broadcaster receives citizen journalism award

5:00pm

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Into the Woods

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Up the Down Staircase

7:30pm|Squalicum High School

Bayshore Symphony Winter Concert

7:30pm|Central Lutheran Church

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Refugee Talk

2:00pm|Christ the Servant Lutheran Church

Northwest Cancer Summit

2:00pm|Bellingham Golf and Country Club

Sting and Piano Chamber Concert

3:00pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

The Tao of Raven

4:00pm|Village Books

Making time with Oscar

4:30pm

The Irish Rovers

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

see our complete calendar »

IGN Cascadia Northwood Steak and Crab Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books Bellingham Farmer’s Market Bellingham Technical College Trove