Art & Design

The Mystery of Vivian Maier, America’s Most Unexpected Street Photographer

Art & Design

The Mystery of Vivian Maier, America’s Most Unexpected Street Photographer

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Good stories make you wonder if things are a product of fate or luck, an otherworldly intuition, or just coincidence. In 2007, John Maloof bought a box a negatives at a Chicago auction for $400 and happened upon the work of maybe the most important undiscovered American photographer of the 20th century, Vivian Maier. Without Maloof’s dedication, Maier’s work would almost certainly have stayed forgotten, and largely undeveloped, packed away in boxes in storage units and attics. “Finding it was coincidence because everything was coming into alignment at the perfect time,” says Maloof, who explains that he had just left a job in real estate and had the time to devote to archiving this woman’s work posthumously and co-directing the film, Finding Vivian Maier, in theaters now.

You’ve probably seen Maier’s work, her classic black and white street photography from the streets of Chicago in the fifties and sixties, or her fragmented reflection in her haunting self-portraits. When Maloof first posted it online, the photos went viral. He then started to track down more boxes of negatives and undeveloped rolls, and the other miscellaneous things she left behind: receipts, hats, coats, 8mm film, and audio recordings. “There was one little canister of teeth. I found a lock of hair in a bag,” notes Maloof. “It’s hard to put into words but going through somebody’s stuff, all the little things she made the decision to save, these are all things that tell a lot about her.”

The documentary plays like a mystery, piecing together Maier’s life from these relics and interviews with her former employers and the children she babysat. Maloof and his co-director, Charlie Siskel, paint a measured portrait of a talented artist and idiosyncratic character, whose compulsive photography bled into obsessive hoarding, and whose fierce independence veered on isolation. The more we find out about Maier, the more we find out how private she was. The children once in her care recount never being able to enter her locked attic bedroom. And Maloof faces the ethical dilemma of whether or not she would appreciate this documentary prying into her personal life. Though he notes, there was a letter suggesting some intention to show her work, and adds, “she always clipped stories out of newspapers. She loved a good story, and this is a good story, so I think she would understand. If this wasn’t her story and she saw it in the paper, we think she would clip it out.”

When I asked Maloof if he saw a parallel between his own obsession with Maier and her obsessive nature, he laughed. “I didn’t at first, but people pointed it out.” The parallels don’t stop there. Maloof actually became inspired by Maier and took up street photography himself, even using the same Rolleiflex camera.

Street photography depends on a voyeuristic relationship. One sees without being seen. “You don’t want to connect with them,” Maloof says of the subjects. “You want to document without breaking that barrier.” The tragic part of Vivian’s story is she had these barriers not just as a photographer but in her personal life too. And as cliche as the idea might be, as you watch the documentary you wonder if the genius of her work depended on that sacrifice. “She had nobody close to her. She was always on the outside,” says Maloof. “She was observing in these homes she worked as a nanny in as much as she was when she went out on the street. She was in the perfect mindset to be an observer.”