Cinema: Finding Vivian Maier

By Ross, Deborah | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Cinema: Finding Vivian Maier


Ross, Deborah, The Spectator


Finding Vivian Maier

12A, Nationwide

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about the American nanny who led a wholly secretive life as a photographer and who, posthumously, has been described as 'one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century'. It's a good story, which is well told here, and told breezily (83 minutes), which we like. But I'm not convinced the quote from Michael Moore on the poster -- 'Amazing...this should be seen with other people, in the dark, on a big screen' -- is necessarily true. Ms Maier has already been the subject of Alan Yentob's Imagine strand on the BBC, and this film could just as happily be viewed on TV as in the cinema, I think. You must beware movie posters, particularly if it turns out that one of the producers (in this instance, Charlie Siskel) was also one of the producers for Moore's Bowling for Columbine . This is how it works. And while we are on the subject, if Elle or Marie Claire or Cosmo ever say: 'The funniest rom-com of the year!', it's worth knowing this is abjectly wrong in 100 per cent of instances.

But back to the matter in hand, and Vivian Maier, whose story, for our purposes, begins in 2007 when John Maloof, an historian (who also directed this film, and is the main talking head), purchased a box of 4,000 unmarked negatives at a Chicago auction house for $380. He was working on a book about his neighbourhood, and hoped the box would contain archival photography he could use but, in the end, he just shoved it all in a closet. Two years later, acting out of curiosity, he thought he might develop a few, and what he saw blew his mind, as it will do yours. Pictures of down-and-outs, drunks, poor children, labourers and the occasional rich dowager in furs, but mostly it was people living at the margins, and the quality. The quality! So raw and true and powerful. These are the sort of pictures that, once seen, can never be unseen. They will inevitably call Diane Arbus to mind, which is never a bad thing.

His curiosity was piqued further, as it would be. Why were these photographs never developed? Why were these photographs never shown to anyone? Why were they taken so compulsively? (He ultimately tracked down around 100,000 negatives.) This is as much a detective story as anything, which starts with Maloof's first discovery: that Vivian (born 1926) had just died, that she'd been a hoarder, and that she'd left a storage unit packed to the rafters with everything: shoes, hats, receipts, trinkets, hair clips, hundreds of canisters of undeveloped film. …

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