~ Posted by Simon Willis, July 21st 2014


In the winter of 2007, a young estate agent called John Maloof was rootling around in some boxes at an auction house in Chicago. He was looking for old photographs of the city for a book he was writing on the side, and came across a box of negatives. He didn’t know what they were, but he snapped them up and took them home. As he began to look more closely, he liked what he saw. There were shots of a black man riding a powerful horse under a flyover in New York, of an elegant white-haired woman in a lace veil glancing querulously at the camera, of a blond boy in a fur-collared coat crying his eyes out. They were intimate and spontaneous, and when he posted them on a blog the response was an ecstasy of exclamation marks. The pictures, which nobody had seen before, added nothing to Maloof’s book. But they did add a new name to the photographic canon: Vivian Maier.

Now Maloof has made a documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier”, which tells the enthralling story of his discovery and the sad mysterious life of the woman behind the work, much of it spent as an itinerant nanny in Illinois. He bought all the negatives he could find until he had 100,000 of them. He bought thousands of rolls of undeveloped film. He tracked down people she’d worked for, and raided storage units. “She was a pack rat,” he says. She kept old receipts and bus passes, uncashed income-tax cheques, old coats and dresses, pile upon pile of newspapers. There were old home-videos and voice recordings she’d made. Gradually he pieced together her life—from her birth in New York in 1926 to her solitary death in a park on the shores of Lake Michigan in 2009. The central question of the film and of her life was—as one of the people she nannied puts it—“Why would you hoard all this great art? Why wouldn’t you share it?”


Her art has drawn comparisons with Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Among the photographers interviewed in the film is Mary Ellen Mark: “She had a great eye. A great sense of framing. She had a sense of humour and a sense of tragedy. She had it all.” She had a spiky determination too. Maier would go to supermarkets with a tape recorder and conduct mini vox-pops on the political stories of the day. “What do you think of the impeachment?” she asks one woman. “I don’t know,” the woman replies. “Well you should have an opinion. Women are supposed to be opinionated, I hope.” As a nanny, she would take her kids to parades, and give them armfuls of candy from the Marshall Fields department store. But once, when one of her charges was knocked off his bike by a car, she got out her camera and photographed him lying in the street. Sometimes she would hit the children, and one woman recalls Maier force-feeding her. “She would hold me down and shove the food in my throat,” she says, “and she would choke me until I swallowed it. And she would do that over and over again.” And she was always elusive, locking the doors of the rooms she lived in, and lying about her name, either giving entirely false names or using variations of her real one: Meier, Meyer, Meyers, B. Maier, D. Maier. “I’m a sort of spy,” she once said.

In unveiling her character, the film zooms in on the secret of her art, which may also have been the secret of reticence. She was drawn to drifters and marginal people because in many ways she was one herself. At one point we see a series of shots—a dead horse in the gutter, the rotting corpse of a cat, a homeless man holding himself desperately against a wall. “She sees the bizarreness of life, the incongruity of life, and the unappealingness of human beings,” a woman who once employed Maier says. She turned it into great photography, but perhaps, paradoxically, it also kept her locked away in her own world.

“Finding Vivian Maier” is in cinemas in Britain and America now

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life