Long before director/writer John Maloof conceived of creating the documentary film "Finding Vivian Maier," he went to a local auction where he bought a cache of negatives, hoping that he might find something of interest for a history of his neighborhood that he was writing.
Once home, he looked at a few samples, he concluded there was nothing he could use for his book and put the box on a shelf where it remained for some time.
It was only later, when he took a closer look, Maloof realized that the photographs, taken by a street photographer he had never heard of, a Vivian Maier, were surprisingly good. Beyond good, he decided.
Wondering who this woman was, and assuming her work had been shown in galleries and would be known in a world he was not familiar with, he began a process of inquiry that would surprise him in countless ways.
After acquiring more of Maier's work, Maloof had some 100,000 negatives in his possession. Which is what most were: negatives. As he soon learned, Maier (1926-2009) had shot hundreds of rolls of film, some never developed; many simply kept in their containers and left in cardboard boxes. He found no prints until he began to develop samples from the stacks of negatives. What he saw, in black and white (rarely in color), were haunting, stark, street photos, each shot with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera, the subjects rarely posed, many were pictures of the urban dispossessed, hundreds were unforgiving photos of those who, like so much flotsam and jetsam, reside on the edges of society. Most simply stared into the camera as if startled or curious. Maier and her camera might have been intrusive after the fact, but not in the moment. The moment shows an existential truth that is compelling.
Most of her pictures, no matter the setting or subject, have a sense of melancholy, while others possess a penetrating bleakness, often raw and unadorned, street portraits of inner-city denizens often invisible, except to Maier. There are also photos of children, some with an element of unexpected warmth and playfulness. What Maier created was art, and her work is suffused with humanity in all its permutations.
But then Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel make two decisions that push "Finding Vivian Maier," with all its potential, toward the mundane. First they structure the film using the formulaic documentary format of offering up background information using standard full-face interviews with those who knew Maier.
As it turns out, Maier was a nanny, working in some of the toniest parts of Chicago, taking care of the children of the affluent (to include the children of Phil Donahue).
Her childhood was spent in France with her French mother and Austrian father (who left early on). Gradually, it becomes clear that Maier is a damaged human being, reclusive, obsessive, a hoarder, suspicious of men, never married and, of course, childless. Some of the adults who were once under her care as children insisted she had a dark side and could be cruel, even physically abusive. Clearly, the contrast between her as a person and her work, which demonstrates an overriding compassion, suggests an inherent dissonance.
And that is the second question raised: While the filmmakers manage to create a mystery of sorts, how important is it to know the details of an artist's life while judging his or her work? Is it necessary to know that Hemingway killed himself?
The essence of "Finding Vivian Maier" should have been her work, and if one studies her extensive collection, there is a great deal to be gleaned about the woman and what she saw on the streets of Chicago that no one else viewed as extraordinary. Was she enigmatic, living in a place apart? To be sure. But is it not a fact, and perhaps far more interesting, that when she lifted her Rolleiflex and peered into its lens, she was transformed? Something wonderful happened that is indefinable, and ultimately inexplicable.
Maloof and Siskel spend far too much time and footage trying to find the woman behind the images, an effort that detracts from the artist and eventually becomes a bit tedious and mundane.
Artists, at least many of them, live messy and complicated and eccentric lives, as did Maier. Their art, not unlike Maier's, its form and inspiration, may come from experiences of grinding torment or surprising insight, culminating in transcendence. But first and foremost is the art — be it oil on canvas, words on a page, or, like Maier, capturing moments that reveal, in unvarnished black and white, all aspects of the human condition.
To find Vivian Maier, one must look no further than her photographs. She is there. Found. The rest is just conversation.