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Finding Vivian Maier – Movie Review

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Finding Vivian Maier – Review by Frank L.

Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Writers: John Maloof (story), Charlie Siskel (story)
Stars: Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark

John Maloof was brought up in a family who were in the habit of attending car boot sales and local auctions. He learnt from an early age the possibilities that may lie unseen in an unlikely lot at an auction. With that background as a young man he bid $380.00 successfully for a large box containing an enormous number of photographic negatives.

Maloof soon realised that the negatives contained some very fine images of ordinary people taken usually in the less salubrious areas of New York and Chicago. But it was far from clear who the photographer was. The name of “V. Maier” on some scraps of paper was the necessary lead which enabled Maloof to discover who the photographer was. But that did not get him very far as she did not appear to have had any relatives and it was far from clear where she lived and from where she had come. The documentary explains how he answered these riddles.

She was born in New York in 1926, brought up in France and returned to America where she occupied herself as a nanny which gave her the time to take photographs. Given the number of negatives, she was obsessive about it but she developed a fine skill in taking a great image. She was able to engage with her subjects who are often the less successful members of society or those for whom the American dream had not happened. In order to try to bring colour and background to her life, Maloof tracked down some of the people for whom she worked and the children now grown up to whom she acted as nanny. There are clips from interviews with this very varied collection of people who bring her to “life” as an intensely private person who had obsessive tendencies. Apart from the vast hidden collection of photographs she had enormous stacks of newspapers which she kept to which on some unknown future date she would return. Her behaviour was unusual to say the least. She was an unworldly loner. However the interviewees are a delightfully varied lot who together represent a delightful slice of life. Given that some of them give directly contradictory descriptions about Vivian Maier e.g. her French accent whether authentic or false only add to their charm.

Sitting on such a treasure trove of photographic gems rightly or wrongly but inevitably, Maloof brings them to the attention of the cognoscenti of New York, Los Angeles and London and Vivian Maier is acclaimed as a great observer of urban 20th century American life. A far cry from her life as a reclusive nanny.

Undoubtedly this is a great story but the material which Maloof and Siskel had to make a documentary with was both limited and yet unwieldy. The interviews, which are at its heart, if not judiciously edited and cut could have become repetitive but somehow the interviewees themselves make up such a varied cornucopia of individuals that the whole piece transforms itself into a celebration of a life unostentatiously led but now extolled because of Maier’s skill as a photographer into a life worthy of acclaim as an artist and as a chronicler. Maloof and Siskel in the process have done her proud and proved themselves to be fine chroniclers too.

 

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