It’s amazing what you can find in car boot sales, auctions and attics – sometimes, among the gnarly Toby jugs and cracked candlesticks, there’s a box full of delights. In 2007 John Maloof found such a box at an auction house in Chicago and bought it for 380 dollars. He eventually amassed100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of undeveloped colour film and many reels of home movie footage. This was the life work of Vivian Maier, an unknown – even to those that she worked and lived with – street photographer. When Maloof developed the rolls of film he discovered a stunning talent and thankfully shared it with us by filming his investigations into her life, and by scanning, printing and setting up exhibitions of her work.
The, mainly monochrome, photographs reveal a photographer with a great eye, perfect timing and sensitive nature who managed to get extremely close to her subjects. Impressive, being that they were nearly all perfect strangers that she simply spotted in the street. This intimacy is something that contradicts Maier herself, a very private person who disliked anybody knowing much about her – where she was from, whether she had any family… We’re told that she would speak with a French accent that waivered but made her seem ‘exotic’ to the families she worked for as a nanny, and when asked what she did before this profession she would reply ‘I’m sort of a spy.’ This is true actually, if you consider how she would observe her unassuming subjects and prowl the streets for her art.
Maloof and Siskel attempt to put the Maier puzzle together with the help of her acquaintances (friends would be too strong a word) and the now grown-up kids she looked after. These talking heads occasionally provide humourous anecdotes and insight but often contradict each other, and by turns Maier is portrayed as kind and fun and ruthless, perhaps even violent. The interviewees themselves are strange, answering erratically as if just talking about their old nanny charges them emotionally. On the whole, they’re not very likeable characters and there’s much that would have been better placed on the cutting-room floor.
The film’s main joy, intrigue and significance is found when Maier’s photos are on screen. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the woman herself in a mirror, or reflected in a window – she wore unfeminine clothes, was gangly, had a prominent nose and sad eyes. Perhaps because she was so odd and unthreatening to look at she was able to get close to her subjects. That, and the fact that the camera she used, a Rolleiflex, allowed her to shoot from a low angle rather than in people’s faces (spy-like).
Maier seemed to be the real-life Mary Poppins; mysterious, daring and eccentric. She would encourage the children’s play and seemed to relish their youthful imaginations, she would take them out of their suburban neighbourhoods into strange new worlds such as the rougher parts of town or the slaughter house, and she would pack up and disappear with little warning. At one point she lived in the attic and filled it with newspapers until the floor buckled under the weight.
Maloof follows various leads and travels to France to find the only remaining relative of Maier, a cousin, and see the Alpine village where she spent her youth before moving back to New York, where she was born. We learn frustratingly little from this trip and, along with the contradictory interviews, we’re left feeling like the puzzle is all corners and sides – that it’s missing the heart of the picture. It’s a flawed documentary that loses its way, and at times seems very self-indulgent on the part of Maloof. Yet the real star of the film is the photography – and the four-star rating given here is not for the directors’ skill, but for the wonderful images they’ve broadcast for us. Though Vivian Maier isn’t ‘found,’ and seemingly didn’t want to be found, at least she’s no longer lost in a box in an attic somewhere.