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Winter 2015

Hiding and Seeking: Vivian Maier

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Imogen Sara Smith

Finding Vivian Maier,
produced and directed by
John Maloof and Charlie Siskel,

Sitting on the ground, the homeless man curls himself into an elegant spiral: knees raised, arms wrapped, head lowered so that nothing shows but the round top of his cloth cap. His light-colored suit and hat are dirty, but he wears good shoes, and there is a ring on his hand. Huddled on the sidewalk, he turns himself into his own protective shell; he draws himself inward, hiding, yet makes a shape that arrests the eye.

Still pictures are more secretive than moving pictures. The power of great photographs comes from the tension between what they reveal and what they withhold. Cut off from time before and after, they have the excitement of mysteries forever on the verge of being solved. A young black man dressed in white rides a dark horse bareback under the shadow of the El: the picture lingers in the mind like a cryptic poem. The street is empty, the horse walks calmly, and the boy sits on its back with easy grace.

Documentary films about photographers are caught between images that flow and images that freeze; talking heads unpack the significance of iconic images seen all too fleetingly. Still photography turns a fugitive glimpse into a permanent record that can be studied for any length of time. A beautiful woman with dark-rimmed eyes, seen from the window of a passing bus, becomes a monument as enduring as the marble front of the Public Library rising behind her. Film returns these images to the tyranny of time, giving them context at the price of their independence.

Finding Vivian Maier investigates the case of a provokingly secretive woman who took thousands of photographs but kept them locked away, never showing or selling them during her lifetime. The documentary features interviews with people who knew Maier, including those who employed her as a nanny or who as children were her charges. They construct a fascinating, contradictory, unsettling verbal portrait of the artist, complicating rather than simplifying our understanding of her. It seems she was conscious of being a puzzle, even gleefully so: one speaker quotes Maier calling herself “the mystery woman.”

Vivian Maier was a strange, difficult person, and those who knew her have spent a lot of time trying to understand her. But when people in the film say, “Why was a nanny taking all these photographs?” or “What’s the use of taking it if no one sees it?” they reveal less about Maier than about common assumptions of what art is for, and who artists are. Maier’s photographs, to which she devoted herself rigorously but for which she never sought recognition, illustrate the paradox of someone who wanted to stay hidden yet obsessively documented her existence, a solitary outsider who could form profound, fleeting connections with strangers. One interviewee speculates that Maier would have been upset at having her privacy violated by the documentary’s delving. But the film’s fascination with its subject, at once intrusive and compassionate, feels very much like Maier’s own eye, stalking people in the street, yet seeming not to expose them so much as to grant them the flattery of rapt attention.

The film’s other central figure is John Maloof, who recounts how he discovered Vivian Maier’s photographs in a storage locker he bought at auction, tracked down her identity, and introduced her work first by uploading scanned photographs online, later by organizing gallery exhibitions. Maloof’s tireless dedication to and curiosity about Maier complement her prodigious output and compulsive hoarding, her furtiveness and self-invention. He wound up possessing not only thousands of prints and rolls of undeveloped film, but a magpie collection of ticket stubs, buttons and jewelry, teeth in film canisters, audio cassettes recording her interviews with baffled shoppers at grocery stores. Maier brought boxes of belongings with her to each new house where she worked; she insisted on locking her rooms and forbade people to enter or look at her things. She hoarded newspapers until employers lost patience with the ever-growing stacks. It is tempting to speculate on what connection this compulsive collecting had to her prolific collecting of images. (Though it is also important in considering her art to remember that Maier never curated or selected her photographs, and that all photographers take masses of images they do not publish.)

She was continually out in the streets, often taking the children in her care along on her expeditions, sometimes to rough neighborhoods or stockyards. (Being a nanny gave her free time and the chance to be out and about, she noted.) Paging through Maier’s photographs draws you into the experience of an inveterate gawker. She looks at couples embracing, accident victims lying on the sidewalk or being carried away on stretchers, kids playing in the street, fat women’s skirts blowing up, stylish hair-dos, bums sitting on the curb, dead cats in the gutter, children crying, sailors in train stations, all manner of street tableaux. She often allowed her shadow to intrude on the picture, reminding us that she’s there. As two fashionable women in fur wraps, high heels, and chic hats walk away, the shadow falling on the sidewalk suggests an envious outsider. Vivian Maier was a tall, strapping woman who wore shapeless coats and heavy boots and walked in a stiff manner, swinging her arms mechanically. She appears to have had no intimate relationships, and speakers in the film say she feared men, speculating that she’d been abused or molested in some way.

The range of Maier’s subjects matches the complexity of her personality. She’s remembered warmly and admiringly by some who knew her, by others as physically and emotionally abusive. She evidently suffered from some form of mental illness or psychological damage, but it’s impossible to piece together the whole story from a collection of impressions: the memories of people who knew her at different times and under different circumstances are like frames clipped at random from a lost film. Similar contradictions come across in her photographs. There are sweet pictures of old couples holding hands or sleeping on each other’s shoulders, and pictures of children taken by someone who knew and understood them in all their moods and private games. There is also an insistence on looking at what is ugly, disturbing, tragic, or grotesque: at the down and out, the battered, the blatantly unloved. She was drawn to the lower depths, where people mysteriously survive. “The poor are too poor to die,” Maier said.

As a nanny, she was always a hanger-on, living with families but without a family of her own, living in other people’s homes and fiercely trying to claim a personal space in them. Her interest in outsiders is easy to account for; more surprising is the extraordinary rapport that radiates from simple, straight-on portraits she took of strangers. They are among her best work, these images of people who are not caught unawares but who have obviously given their permission to the woman with the camera. The subjects are tightly framed and look right at the camera, with a relaxed openness and generous honesty: a tired but gracious black woman resting her cheek on one hand, a blonde girl with her arms loosely crossed, a weathered old pug in a cloth cap, a man sitting on a crate and leaning forward avidly to gaze back at the camera. There must have been something about Vivian Maier that made possible these gently charged moments of respectful, sympathetic connection.

One face appears again and again in Maier’s photographs—her own. She took formal, posed self-portraits, and spontaneous ones whenever she noticed her reflection caught in a shop-window, a shiny cigarette-machine, a hub-cap, a mirror being unloaded from a truck by moving men. She does not pose or smile, but presents herself impartially. Her Rolleiflex is always around her neck at chest height, recording its own image. The way the Rolleiflex is held (the photographer looks down into it) adds a distinctive low angle to Maier’s portraits; it also meant that she could look her subjects in the eye while taking their pictures, or pretend not to be aiming at them.

In 1959, Vivian Maier traveled around the world with no company except her camera. Her eye traveled just as boldly around the streets of New York and Chicago. In the mid-twentieth century, women’s freedom to be walkers in the city without being treated as streetwalkers, to observe rather than being observed, was still relatively new. By photographing her reflection and her shadow, Maier records, insists on, her presence in the world. She was here: her head blocks the sun, her face is overlaid on the contents of store windows. Vivian Maier refused to show her work, but she refused just as stubbornly to be invisible. She was both hiding and seeking. Whether she wanted to be found will always remain her secret.

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. She is a freelance writer and archivist living in Brooklyn.

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