Some people get one shot at greatness. If you happen to be as lucky as Vivian Maier however, one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers, you can get 100,000 of them. The late Ms. Maier, a mysterious nanny with a passion for observing and capturing people at the most banal points in their day, is the subject of this amazing documentary. One of the many bizarre, yet dazzling facts in this eclectic woman’s life is that her work went almost entirely unseen, even by Maier herself.
Finding Vivian Maier is a compelling story of discovery that really began as a fluke (you really need to check out the trailer below) when amateur historian John Maloof happened upon her entire collection of undeveloped negatives. Had he not won that particular action, Maier’s strange and riveting story would have been lost forever. This captivating doc shares never-before-seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens of people who only thought they knew her. One thing is for sure, Maloof’s documentary reveals more to this misunderstood woman than anyone could ever imagine.
As the saying goes, you don’t appreciate something until it’s gone. The main idea there is that one must have known about something prior to losing it for the absence to mean anything. John Maloof shares with the world the fascinating life and enduring legacy of a talented woman who was unaware of her gift – her eye for catching humanity in a single frame. Maloof tries to show us that Vivian lived a very full life. Not normal by any means, and she had a strange and very troubled upbringing, but she made each day her own. The true shame is that she never knew how great and fulfilling her life could have been had she just opened up a little bit more.
Vivian Meyer was, very nearly, the definition of artsy. She was also a free spirit, a gypsy, and many more things to each of the people in her life. As a nanny, the children in her care were included in every quirky adventure she had. Be it a simple trip to the grocery store (where she’d strike up political conversations with shoppers imagining herself as a reporter) or photographing trash cans on her way to the park, Vivian had a desire to document everything in her life. She was fantastic at photographing subjects – partly because of her knack for framing, but also the type of camera she used (a Rolleiflex), she captured subjects with very few of them ever knowing it.
Realizing you are in front of the camera changes the nature of the individual. But time and again, Maier captured just one second in a person’s life and the result of each unassuming shot was one charming, innovative, and revealing portrait after another. Vivian was less than confident (her rough up bringing contributed greatly to the woman she turned out to be), but the documentary tells us that she actually had an idea of how good she was at photography. And she was great.
This doc is highly fanciful (thanks to the score by J. Ralph) and charts the course of this enigmatic woman who was waiting for the perfect time to showcase her talent. Yet for all her staggering postmortem fame, and skill behind the camera, it turns out Maier was outspoken, and at the same time incredibly shy and insecure. Her story might not, at first, seem very remarkable but the trail of clues ultimately lead to one the more amazing subjects captured in a documentary.
Documentaries can often be the most surprising and enlightening when they bring to light a story that has never been told. Vivian’s whole life can be told solely in her pictures as each one is worth far more than a thousand words. They speak to the personality of the subject and, in the case of Maier, each snapshot reveals something deep and meaningful about the person both in front of and behind the camera. Though she would most likely protest the idea of it, it’s great that this film turns the lens on Maier; she became a subject just as fascinating as any of her photos.