In America, street photography really became recognized after WW II. Although Depression Era greats like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans did some street photography, post war photographers like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Paul McDonough, and others made street photography into a respected genre. About 20 years ago, John Maloof, a Chicago preservationist, wanted to write a book about the history of the northwest portion of the city, and needed some vintage photographs. Being an ex flea-market dealer, he bought a trunk at an abandoned property auction that had some negatives inside. What he found was astounding: thousands of print film negatives and scores of undeveloped print film rolls. Most of the prints, all black and white, were taken in the 1960's and 70's, and often featured both posed and candid shots of people. There was a name, Vivian Maier, but Maloof couldn't find any information about her. He developed some of the negatives and posted them online asking for information. What he got were raves the quality of the photographs. He contacted MOMA, which was not interested. At the auction a few others had bought some of Maier's other trunks, also filled with negatives, and Maloof was able to buy those trunks as well. By now he had at least a hundred thousand [not a typo] negatives. He began more research, and soon discovered that Vivian Maier had worked as a nanny for families in Chicago and Long Island, all the while obsessively taking photographs, often with her young charges in tow, and often in poor sections of Chicago. However Maier was very reclusive and rarely spoke about herself to the parents of her charges. At stores she would give false names when ordering items. She was a hoarder, and kept huge stacks of newspapers from which she would occasionally clip articles or photograph headlines. She also collected small things like political buttons, which she would keep in her attic room in the homes of those children she cared for. As she grew older, she began to slide from eccentricity into likely mental illness. Her prodigious output, totally nearly 150,000 (!!) negatives and many 8 mm film clips, is astonishing. More astonishing is that Maier printed very few of her negatives and never made any attempt, as far as is known, to exhibit her work. Some felt that she never intended others to see her photography, while several interviewees disagree. Ironically, Maier died the year that Maloof discovered her photographs, and he has produced a powerful memorial to her: Finding Vivian Maier.
Maloof tracked down friends who were about to throw out boxes of Maier's belongings, and from letters was able to locate many of the families for whom Maier worked. His interviews with those who knew Maier (or thought they knew her) are fascinating. These include a number of the now much older parents, the actual children that Maier cared for (now adults), gallery owners, and well-known photographers. These interviews are wonderful, often eloquent, each revealing different aspects of Maier, and in some cases disagreeing about their perception of her. For instance, two of the now adult children had opposing opinions about her slight French accent. A linguistics scholar was convinced it was phony but another felt it was genuine. One child said that Maier could be mean, but another said that she was very caring with her kids. All of the parents and the children remembered that she never went anywhere without her camera. And several had funny stories about Maier taking them to the stockyards and skid row neighborhoods (in Chicago). Many of these reminisces are accompanied by Maier's photographs. It is particularly fascinating to see the children in her photographs now being interviewed as adults. But more than anything, what emerges in his attempt to understand Maier is her solitariness, determination, reclusiveness and paranoia. Some of the women interviewed thought she might have been abused as a child, because she was so leery of men. Another said, "She just didn't fit in every well". She was clearly lonely, and one friend describes a pathetic scene of meeting Maier many years later as the friend was taking the kids to the beach. Maier was desperate to talk but the kids were tugging the friend to the beach. That was the last time she saw her.
It is her photographs that define Maier. Nearly all black and white street scenes throughout Chicago, principally people either unaware that she is photographing them, or closeups where the subject is clearly aware, staring directly into the camera. She often shot working class or very poor people, including drunks sprawled out on the sidewalk as well as upper class women with elaborate hats and hairdos. There are also rare glimpses of Maier herself, always with her Rolleiflex, reflected in storefront windows, or hauntingly, as a long shadow cast by the setting sun behind her. Joel Meyerowitz, the well-known photographer, marvels at how observant and accomplished Maier was: "She deserves to be in major museums". Maier's life seemed to be revealed in her sympathetic photographs of the sad and lonely. Many of her subjects have a strength, dignity and beauty regardless of class. Her photographs are now being exhibited at a number of galleries worldwide, including here in SF. The Scott Nichols Gallery, 49 Geary, has a small but fine exhibit of her work. Maloof has set up an organization to promote Maier's work, and is actively selling the prints. While I loved his film, there seems to be an unspoken conflict between his role as a dealer and as a curator. But that said, he is to be applauded for his years of research, which clearly saved Maier's work from destruction, and then co-directing this wonderful film.
Maloof, in partnership with Charlie Siskel, has made a very accomplished film here. His interviews are particularly well done, and editing first rate. It is a beautiful exploration of a mysterious master, her lost world, and is surprisingly poignant and moving. Finding Vivian Maier goes by in a flash and left me with a sense of disappointment only in that it seemed too short. Screening time: 83 minutes. Just opened at the Clay (where it is scheduled to run for only two weeks), the Rafael (San Rafael), and the Shattuck (Berkeley). Don't miss this very fine film and especially don't miss it on the big screen. Ciao, Ian
Photos: Courtesy of Finding Vivain Maier website