Somewhere around the midpoint of the fascinating but ultimately troubling documentary Finding Vivian Maier, one of the people being interviewed says of Maier’s story, “I find the mystery of it more interesting than the work itself.”
By the time we hear this comment, we have seen and heard more than enough to make the statement sound almost innocuous. Maier was an unknown photographer whose pictures and negatives began turning up in Chicago storage lockers in 2007. Inside trunks and boxes and suitcases filled with clothes, curios, and old newspapers were photo albums, loose prints by the thousands, and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film.
As the work was posted online, people were astonished. Here were pictures that ranked with some of the best street photography of the last 75 years. And the range was equally startling: Besides unblinking shots of bums and derelicts on Chicago streets, there were tender shots of children and the old, and exquisite abstract studies of shadows and light made by everything from streetlights to bicycle spokes. This was a woman with an insatiable appetite for the visual world and the talent to capture it on film.
The work was not widely publicized until after Maier’s death in 2009. At that point, the tabloid quality of the story gave it viral pop: An anonymous nanny had taken thousands of museum-quality photographs but chose not to exhibit them or share them with almost anyone while she lived. The story condensed almost too perfectly to headline-sized subtlety: Mary Poppins With a Camera.
To be sure, Maier was eccentric: a friendless, secretive spinster who spent her life caring for other people’s children. She was a hoarder and a person of uncertain origin: was she French or merely someone pretending to be French? On a tape found in one of those storage lockers, she can be heard supervising a game among her young charges where identities are being assigned. When one of the children asks who Maier will be, she responds, “I am the mystery woman.”
The real mystery, however, is what made that woman take those pictures, and on this subject the film is not much help, although no one seems too disturbed by that. Since it appeared in theaters this month, the documentary has received rave reviews, and understandably: Finding Vivian Maier tells a strange and intriguing story, and filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel deserve the praise they’ve received.
But as I watched the film, small alarms kept going off in my head, because questions are raised—or at least implied—but never satisfactorily answered.
Why does Maloof present himself as the sole discoverer of Maier’s work? If you read the stories that appeared several years ago when the pictures first surfaced, you know that at least three people, including Maloof, found the photos when the contents of Maier’s Chicago storage lockers were auctioned off. This is a major part of the story because it revolves around who owns what, who decides which of Maier’s images the public will see and in what form, who stands to profit, and ultimately who gets to tell and define her story.
Why does Finding Vivian Maier spend so much time interviewing the people, now grown, that she once tended as a nanny? Almost none of these people have much illuminating to say about her, other than that she was weird, secretive, and not always very nice. Moreover, most of the witnesses knew her not in her prime, but when she was older.
And why does Maloof rush past any serious consideration of the quality of the photographs? True, the film offers lots of examples of the pictures, most of which are stunning. But aside from bringing in noted photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark to vouch for Maier’s talent, the film doesn’t trouble itself much with esthetic questions, such as, what exactly makes them great, or how singular or imitative are they? Instead, the film almost bullies us into accepting their greatness.
When Maloof approached the Museum of Modern Art and offered to sell them Maier’s work, MoMA turned him down, he says, because they were uneasy about, among other things, posthumously printing a photographer’s work. Maloof dismisses the objection as “bogus,” pointing out that a fair number of noted photographers hated doing their own printing or weren’t very good at it. And he cites examples of photographers, such as Garry Winogrand, whose undeveloped negatives are still being printed long after his death. What he doesn’t point out is that we have plenty of evidence of how Winogrand printed while he was alive.
For that matter, we have plenty of evidence of how Maier herself printed, including the fact that she cropped a lot of her images, while the people printing and selling her work today use the square, uncropped image straight from the negative. Not that they have much choice, since no one can say how Maier might have cropped any given image—a little, a lot, not at all—there’s no way to know. The safe bet is to simply print the whole negative. But this raises the first of many troubling questions surrounding this strange legacy: Is the posthumous archive being sold today truly her work, or the work of the people who now own it? What would she have kept, and what would she have trashed? Surely the people into whose hands the work has fallen have a right to publish what they discovered, but when the artist herself is removed from the equation, it becomes a very tricky business.
Wherever you may stand on these questions, they are legitimate. None of this should be dismissed as merely a matter of institutional stupidity. Maloof could have made an interesting movie even more interesting if he had more directly engaged those curators with whom he disagrees instead of merely treating them as hidebound bureaucrats supposedly terrified by the idea that the public—the public!—could decide who was great and who was not.
Indeed, a very good film could be made on the subject of who decides who is an artist or who isn’t, especially in the neo-populist era of the web. Not so long ago, gallery owners, collectors, and museum curators were the arbiters of greatness. Maier’s story did an end run on all that. People saw the photographs online and went crazy, and the photography world found itself playing catch up.
A film that does address that issue, and a lot more, is last year’s award-winning BBC documentary by Jill Nicholls, The Vivian Maier Mystery. This film interviews Ron Slattery and Jeffrey Goldstein, who were also instrumental in unearthing and publicizing Maier’s work (Maloof refused to cooperate with the BBC film because he was working on his own movie.) It spends some time with the children Maier nannied, but it also interviews men who worked in the Chicago camera shops she frequented and the film archive where she attended old movies (Buster Keaton, with an audience full of children, was a favorite.) And it directly addresses the tricky issue of who decides how Maier’s work is presented to the public.
“I’ll be the first to honor the quality of the work,” says photographer Joel Meyerowitz in the BBC documentary (he’s one of the few people interviewed for both films). “I’m concerned because we only see what the people who bought the suitcases decided to edit, and what kind of editors are they? What would she have edited out of this work and what would she have printed? How do any of us know who the real Vivian Maier is?”
Pamela Bannos, a photographer who teaches at Northwestern University, takes this idea a step further, saying in the BBC film that Maier has been turned into a mystery woman by the people who now own her work, that the Maier we think we know “has been invented by people who love a good story.”
Bannos has done extensive research on Maier, to the point where she can tell you precisely where Maier stood in the Bowery in New York City in the summer of 1952 to take a particular photograph. And while she’s quite willing to accept that there is much about Maier that we will never know, she also points out that what facts we possess tell us more than the “mystery woman” scenario makes room for.
Maier, for example, was the American-born daughter and granddaughter of French emigrant women who were live-in servants, the same occupation Maier would take up. She lived both in France and America as a child, traveled the world alone, and most crucially, almost surely knew what was going on in the photography world when she was shooting what Bannos says is her best work in the ’50s.
“She thought of herself as a photographer,” Bannos said in an interview with The Daily Beast, and the task now is not to enhance the mystery but to strip away as much as possible, to know Maier as clearly as we can. But that, says Bannos, is no easy task when so much money is at stake (new prints from Maier’s negatives now go for $2,000 and up, and vintage prints by the artist go for thousands more), and when the people who own the various pieces of what Bannos calls “Vivian Maier’s fractured archive” have become exceedingly proprietary. “This is a woman—and it’s a woman’s story—whose legacy is in the hands of all these men.”
In a perfect world, the people who uncovered Maier’s work would profit from it and share what they have with scholars and the public. Until we know what’s in that decidedly fractured and closely held archive, we can’t make a thorough assessment of how good Maier was or even what kind of photographer she was. Her real life—the life we care about and not all the eccentric, mystery woman stuff—is in the pictures. Until the work can be seen as a whole, as a body of work, Maier will indeed remain a mystery.