Finding Vivian Maier
May 30 - June 26.
A mysterious nanny, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage lockers and discovered decades later, is now considered among the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Maier’s strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her.
We all choose what we want the world to know about us. And yet in the end we can’t help but reveal ourselves. It may be that if Vivian Maier had her choice the world would know nothing of her life or her photographs. She chose to conceal herself and hid her art during her lifetime.
But hiding one’s art is, of course, the opposite of destroying it. Maier preserved her work and left its fate to others. Like Kafka’s instructions to burn his writings unread, any wish she may have had for her work to remain unseen, either expressed or unspoken, was ignored.
Documentary filmmakers also choose the stories we want to tell. After years of sifting through Maier’s life’s work and the mountain of personal material she left behind, we made a film that tells the story of an artist who masqueraded as a nanny and whose discovery brought her overdue fame and recognition.
Maier was a kind of spy. She captured street life, often with her suburban charges in tow, recording humanity as it appeared, wherever it appeared – in stockyards, slums, and suburbia itself.
As an artist, Maier was an outsider, which made her empathic toward the marginalized people she often photographed. But her single-mindedness in pursuit of her art exacted a high price.
Maier jokingly called herself a mystery woman. She fiercely protected her privacy and asserted her independence from the bourgeois values of the families she lived with. But she may have secretly longed for the family bonds she witnessed intimately for decades, bonds that were broken in her own childhood.
Our film shows a darker side of Maier than she might have wanted others to see and darker than that which has so far been revealed. But this is only one piece of the story. Her work is now part of the history of photography and an undeniable treasure. The discovery of Maier’s work not only gave her story an ending, there would be no story without it.
Being raised by just my mother who barely made minimum wage her whole life forced me to be extremely resourceful at an early age. Finding thrown out junk and reselling it at flea markets had become a skill of mine. If I wanted something, I figured out a way to make it happen, with a compulsion.
In 2007, as I was writing a history book on my Chicago neighborhood, I was wondering how I would find enough old photos to illustrate the book and tried my luck at a local junk and furniture auction house. I bought a box loaded with negatives that never ended up being used for the book. However, I knew to keep them. I thought, “I’m resourceful. I’ll look at them later when I have more time.” Fast forward 2 years later; that purchase had unearthed some of the finest street photography of the 20th Century. I decided to make a film to document my journey in figuring out who took these incredible photographs.
The negatives belonged to a woman named Vivian Maier. I was given access to her belongings and tons of her odd possessions, so I started my detective work to figure out more about her. I wanted this film to follow the process of my uncovering Maier. The evidence that led me to a person who knew her and then another, and so on. But the more that was uncovered, the more questions that were raised. Would she like what I’m doing? Why did she hide her photos and her personal life from others? Who the hell is this woman? She started to seem like some mythical person.
My obsession drove us to compile a library of interviews and strange stories from across the globe. We found roughly 100 people who had contact with Vivian Maier. In the film, we let the people speak for themselves. I hope that this story comes through honest and pure, and does more than just uncover a mysterious artist but tells a story that changed the history of photography.