Finding Vivian Maier

From Vivian Maier: Self Portraits, 2013

From Vivian Maier: Self Portraits, 2013

The enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009), whose work was discovered after she died, is the subject of this documentary by John Maloof. He is one of the two men who are working to bring her vast legacy to the public. This engaging yet troubling film shows how he tracked down her life story by sifting through the vast piles of the possessions—film, tapes, receipts, clothes—that this eccentric pack rat left behind when she died.

Maier does not emerge as a very nice person. Working most of her life as a nanny, she neglected and even mistreated some of the children under her supervision. Her major method of child care was to take her charges on outings in the city of Chicago, using the trips as opportunities for photo shoots. In the process she traumatized a number of children and parents with her choice of venues, like the killing yards at the Chicago stock yards.

Of course I was interested in what she wore. The film shows piles of items culled from her storage locker, including costume jewelry, hats, and a motley collection of front buttoned shirts. She is not remembered from her style. One commentator snidely described her as looking like a factory worker in the Soviet Union in the fifties. (As a former historian of the Soviet Union, I took umbrage. Soviet women went to great efforts to look nice.)

From Finding Vivian Maier

From Finding Vivian Maier

Maier’s many self portraits tell a different story. Although she didn’t care about current fashion, I thought she had a distinct and interesting style. Her clothes were plain but with clean, angular lines. I particularly admired how she wore her hats. In the last self portrait I found, taken when she was fifty two, she had added a large ring to dress up her outfit.

How did she live once she stopped working? The film offers no visual evidence, but the oral history does not sound pretty. She had a small apartment in northern Chicago, paid for by two of the children she had once cared for. Her neighbors, interviewed in the film, thought she was a crazy trash picker. They had no idea that she would emerge as one of the great chroniclers of their city.

For more photos by Maier, go to her page on the website Artsy.

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5 Responses to Finding Vivian Maier

  1. How interesting. I watched the trailer you linked to and ordered the dvd of the film from Netflix. I looking for the film online I noticed that the copyright of the photos has been questioned, and some galleries have pulled her work. I get the feeling she would not be happy about the whole affair.

  2. sally says:

    I like the comments here on VM’s wardrobe. But I’m always inclined to be skeptical about bad nanny stories. Moreover, which is worse, initiating urban outings, even to stockyards, or the nanny who sits at home either glued solo to the soap opera and/or inculcating the couch potato habit in her “charges.”
    Finally, the fact that two of her former “charges” seem to have helped VM later in life support her modest lifestyle (except for film consumption, and even that remained quite restricted as photo habits go since most of the film she didn’t even develop let alone print) suggests that at least some of those kids felt indebted to her care and maybe even her street-wise urban education.

  3. M-C says:

    I’m totally with Sally. The kids who complained about her struck me as incredibly self-centered. Prissy and entitled. They were outright offended that she dared have a life of her own, one which she did not share with them. Well, so sorry!
    And yes, the hoarding thing is a bit disturbing, but in that generation, from someone who had to leave absolutely everything during the war, and later never lived in a place of her own, I don’t think it’s so surprising.
    Love her photos.. and love her sense of style.

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