Finding Vivian Maier – A Portrait of an Obscure Genius


It is often said that art is the means through which an artist relates to the world. For some artists, the satisfaction, the creative art gives is more than enough than recognition or popularity. These types of artists are really an enigma. In this era of twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, everybody wants to become a celebrity. Vivian Maier worked as a full-time nanny in and around New York and Chicago. She died at the age of 83, in 2009. But, what’s completely unknown till her death was that she was an extremely talented street photographer. Her brilliant, humane photographs could have made a great impact in the art world, but Vivian chose to stay strictly away from the public.

John Maloof, director of documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” is the guy who brought Maier’s works into the limelight. In 2007, while conducting a research on the history of his Chicago neighborhood (for his book), Maloof brought a big chest (for $380) at the local flea market. Inside the chest, there were thousands of undeveloped negatives which belonged to woman named Vivian Maier. He was astounded by the quality of the photographs and went on to recover other boxes from various auctions. Eventually, Maloof gathered an archive of more than 100,000 photographs. But, Maloof couldn’t find the artist of these works.

Some of Maier's Photographs

Some of Maier’s Photographs

A July 2009 obituary notice finally brought Maier to Maloof’s attention. He then sets out to investigate the life of Maier, who was a nanny by trade, No one around her, including the employees weren’t aware that she was a world-class photographer. Maier’s has shot most of the photographs in the 50’s and 60’s with a help of ‘Rolliflex camera’. The pictures reveal that she had a great eye for compositions and also for the absurdities of life. Critics state that her works definitely rank among the greatest street photographers.

Maloof builds the personal portrait of Maier, who seems to be an independent, eccentric, and very private woman. She was also a hoarder, who has filled every inch of her place with newspapers and various other ordinary items. Maloof doesn’t shy away from Maier’s much-talked about dark persona. Her former employees (including the children) state Maier’s fiercely obsessive quality. One interviewee recalls how the nanny Maier took photographs of her brother, who was hit by a car. The boy was injured and laying on the ground, while Maier took photographs of him and the resulting commotion. The interviewees also doubt that her past might be filled with abuses.

John Maloof

John Maloof

As the documentary gets to divulge much information about Maier’s dark side, Maloof only tries to be sensationalistic and rather ignores her great artistic accomplishments. The documentary tries to address all of the throny questions about Maier, but to a certain point ignores the intentions of Maloof. As Maier had no next of kin, Maloof is the rights holder of the photos. So, it is clearly in Maloof’s interest that Maier’s pictures and story circulates around to make huge profits. The documentary isn’t sure how to address this question. At one point, Maloof asks himself about the ethics of going public without the late artist’s approval, but he doesn’t seem to go through a lot of internal struggle, and at times he hollers like a child that the museum has rejected to showcase Maier’s work.

The documentary could have been more insightful if Maloof had only stayed behind the camera. It is definitely distracted since the film-makers attempts to find the meaning of art through the artist’s neuroses. However, the best part of “Finding of Vivian Maier” is the exquisite photographs itself. These pictures compel us to keep our eyes glued to the screen.

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