Artists working in isolation always move me. The genius of Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson was not recognized until they were dead when they could not enjoy their success. You wonder if they would they have liked being adored and hounded and their privacy destroyed. Maybe not.
Vivian Maier may be one of those artists who did not need to be lionized when she was alive.
John Maloof, a real estate agent, bought a box of Maier’s negatives at auction in Chicago.When he began scanning the images and saw the quality of them, he wanted to find out more about the photographer. It turns out the box of negatives was just the tip of the iceberg. There were more than 100,000 negatives left behind by a woman described as a street photographer who made her living as a nanny. Maloof”s movie is a quest to understand who Vivian Maier was, and why her work was just stored in boxes and not on view in MOMA.
Maloof interviews many people who knew her when she was alive, and photographers of stature such as Joel Meyrowitz who speak of her work and offer their opinions of its meaning. Maier was not always a beloved figure. Some of her former charges recount their childhoods under her supervision with bitterness.
One of the themes running through the movie is this question of authenticity and authority. Who can be trusted in telling Vivian Maier’s life story? Who decides whether she is an artist of stature? It is curious how much time in the film Joel Meyrowitz gives to her work without once calling her an artist. Maloof makes clear that what he is really after is to have Maier be recognized as an artist. He is determined to have the art world declare her work on a par with Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and other street photographers whose photographs are part of the permanent collections of MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, and other important art institutions. Maloof has found several galleries to show and sell her work, and he has ownership of all of her negatives, films, and prints, even one of her cameras.
One thing is sure. Vivian Maier could compose images in her viewfinder. (That she never printed her own work is one of the objections certain museums have of her work.) Maloof with his tidy habits is the perfect match for a hoarder such as Maier. How lucky she is to have him as her champion. But how unhappy this film might have made her with its exposure of her personal life which she probably did not want to share.