Some artists would sell their souls for even a fraction of the recognition that photographer Vivian Maier has gotten, even if her recognition was somewhat posthumous. If Maier ever had her way, none of the exemplary street photography that she had shot over her lifetime would have ever seen the light of day. Very few artists have gone as far in keeping their lives a mystery as Vivian Maier, and that mystery quickly became one that filmmaker, writer, and curator John Maloof wanted to solve.
While researching a book about his former Chicago neighbourhood in 2007, Maloof purchased several large boxes containing thousands of unprocessed negatives at an auction to try and get a better sense of the city. The pictures were the work of Maier, an almost lifelong nanny and hoarder, who would live by day as a suburban helper under the cover of normalcy before going out on her own time to observe life through one of the best photographic eyes of the past century.
As evidenced by his work in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier – co-directed by Chicago native Charlie Siskel, both of whom joined me in a Toronto office for a chat during the film’s premiere at TIFF – Maloof made it his goal to make Maier’s work more widely known. The pictures didn’t necessarily help with his intended project, but he did go on to found The Maloof Collection (the superb history of which can be found on the official Vivian Maier website) to make available the close to 150,000 negatives, 3,000 prints, and various home movies, audio tapes, and undeveloped rolls of film available to the public that might have otherwise been junked because no one else would have taken them.
But what of everything that happened between the birth and 2009 death of this now major artist? That was what Siskel and Maloof set out to do with their film since very little was actually known about Vivian’s personal or private life and not a single person – not even really Maier herself – ever looked at the stunning results of her work in the streets. Maloof and Siskel talked to Dork Shelf this past September while they were in town about unearthing a buried history, what they admired about Vivian’s work, the darker aspects of Vivian’s usually sunny personality, and why her degrees of secrecy regarding her art were admirable.
You can find out more about Vivian Maier’s work, life, and exhibitions at the Vivian Maier page at Artsy.
Dork Shelf: I think what I love so much about this film is that it kind of appeals to the history nerd that I have deep down inside of me who loves doing the research to find this greater story without knowing specifically what you are going to find.
John Maloof: Yeah, it’s like an archeological dig.
DS: You’re more of an artist, but do you think deep down there might be a frustrated historian somewhere inside?
JM: I like history, but I don’t have the patience for it. (laughs) I just get too distracted. With something like proper history, textbook written names and dates just don’t stick, but…
Charlie Siskel: But this did start with you working on a history book.
JM: (laughs) Yeah, it did start with me working on a history book about my neighbourhood. So when I try to put something in a package like I was doing with the book about my neighbourhood, I started to get obsessed with these different things that I was finding. I co-authored that, if I’m being honest. But it really does feel with things like this and the book it takes on the feel of an archeological dig. You find one piece here and then you dig a little deeper and you find another piece there. You find a name, you find their contact info, you call them, and all of a sudden you find even more information that leads to an even bigger project.
DS: At what point during the research for the book did you decide there was more of a film to this?
JM: I don’t know if there was one thing that really tipped the scales. It was a really slow incline. I guess finding the first person who knew her was the biggest thing. That was the main thing that sparked my wanting to document the process. But more similar stories started to come out from people that we were finding and we just kind of branched off in different directions. It just added to the different flavours and personalities that lets Vivian’s life kind of take shape.
DS: Charlie, when did you come on to help out and get involved? At one point we see you on camera and it looks like you were the only one in the room.
CS: Well, sometimes I would interview John via Skype.
JM: Nearly every interview you see done of me was done via Skype. I had these two cameras set up with a laptop in the middle of them. (laughs)
CS: Obviously, John is a central character in the film, but the film itself is, of course, about Vivian and trying to piece together her life and lay out pieces of evidence and looking at it that way. So when faced with this overwhelming mountain of evidence it becomes a lot for one person to deal with and keep it all straight. That visual metaphor of the archeological dig and the creation of a grid, so to speak, describes the process of sifting through it all and making sense out of it.
John would start to piece together the stories and bring together all of the people, but I really got involved when John had started to do some interviews. I think it was when he first realized it would make a great film. He decided to shoot some of them, and he was looking for a partner to help make the film. So Jeff Garlin who is a photography collector in Chicago, and helped produce the film, and who was someone I knew got in touch.
JM: And an actor, by the way! It is the Jeff Garlin you’re probably thinking of. (laughs) I didn’t really know of his interest in photography, but he was good friends with Michael Moore, and Jeff was the one who told me I should get in touch with Charlie.
CS: So I got the call asking me what I knew about Vivian Maier, and I had a vague idea of the story. I started poking around the internet to look at what her work was like and some of the stories that had come out about her and what we could discover. I said I was in, but what they didn’t know was that she was actually a nanny in my old neighbourhood! I grew up in one of the suburbs of Chicago, and she was a nanny for some people who lived about half a mile from me. So some of the ravines in the film were ravines that were in my backyard. It was just one of those crazy coincidences.
DS: There’s something kind of generous about bringing Vivian’s work to a greater audience like you did, John. It might sound cynical of me, but it doesn’t seem like something a lot of artists would want to do. Was there any sort of jealousy from looking at this work?
JM: I get what you’re saying, but there wasn’t any jealousy or anything like that at all. I wasn’t a photographer at all when I first started. But just as an artist, I got into photography and what it could do through her inspiration. But I couldn’t be jealous of it because at first I didn’t even know if it was good or not. I wouldn’t know anything about that. I had to learn. She inspired me to look harder when it came to documenting the city of Chicago in the 1950s even after I had just finished writing a whole history book on my own neighbourhood. I started looking even deeper into her starting in about 2007 or 2008 and that got me obsessed with photography. Now I print and develop my own film and I couldn’t do that before. Over time I started to realize that this was really good stuff and way better than I originally had thought, and that was when I realized that the work was really worth sharing with the world and that there was a bigger story here that could be told.
DS: Vivian’s life is one where there a lot of different pieces of information scattered over a lot of different places and over a long period of time. The movie gets pretty dark when you get into her background, and she wasn’t the nicest of people to everyone around her. At what point did you notice this darkness and did it colour anything that you had previously believed before it?
JM: We shot almost all the film before we really started to put these puzzle pieces together. When I was coming back from Minnesota and we looked into her family was when it hit me.
CS: Yeah, because in other interviews we had heard from others that she could be difficult. We certainly knew about the hoarding that would happen later in her life. We knew those stories. We knew there were more troublesome aspects of her personality. We had already started speculating if there was an event in her childhood that might have created that sort of thing. And we certainly knew from a genealogical perspective that the family had broken up and broken apart over the years, but I don’t think we ever knew the significance of the darker material until we really started to piece together the story.
It was something that we constantly revisited throughout the editing of the film. Obviously when you’re editing a documentary, even though you are basing everything on real events and real people, you’re still making choices in how you tell the story. We wanted to be faithful and truthful in telling that stories. You have to eventually decide where and what you want to spend more time on, and we were always conscious of whether or not we were going to give that too much weight, but we also couldn’t give it too little. We never wanted it to seem like we glossed over anything, and we wanted it to be an honest portrait.
The stuff that was difficult for her and was difficult for people to talk about, that was difficult for us to hear, too. We had recognized throughout this process that Vivian was a brilliant, brilliant artist. As a character you can’t help but want to fall in love with her. She’s funny, she was charming, she took kids on incredible adventures. To use an antiquated term, she showed an incredible amount of moxie. She took these suburban, privileged kids off to the worst parts of town, not to traumatize them, but to open their eyes and broaden their horizons. I was one of those kids that should have had that experience. I never went to skid row. I think she was interested in showing people how other people lived, and that you can’t grow up with these blinders on. We loved all those qualities in her, so it was definitely hard to hear about some of the more troubling stuff in her life.
DS: It’s interesting that you use the term “honest portrait,” because these qualities that you found yourselves drawn to were, in many ways, the most honest things about her in the end. Everything that was an extension of her art were the most honest things she had in life while her personal life was kind of a mess and she kept her talents secret her entire life. Was that one of the things that struck you the most when you were crafting this look at her life?
CS: Well, Vivian had an interest in many, many subjects. Fashion, architecture, art. Whether she had a formally trained eye or not, she was great with light and composition and things like that. She also liked to focus on poor and marginalized people, and I think on some level I think she felt that and identified with those people. At her core I think that she was an artist, and all artists to a certain degree FEEL marginalized. She made incredible sacrifices in her life to do her art, and one of them was living this outwardly conventional lifestyle because she was living with these suburban families. She’s living as a nanny, so she has all the trappings of normalcy, and security, and wealth, and yet she doesn’t belong. She was never a part of any of these families. She was the help. And I think that’s a lot of what I think you’re getting at and noticing. She would go out on weekends and nights, sometimes with the kids, and she’s out satisfying that creative urge and the urge to make art.
JM: Totally, and if I could just add to that, is that I for one was very envious that she could do that. I know or at least I think that most artists wish that they could have that kind of legacy and to be able to say “Really, I just did that for myself.” And that was ultimately what Vivian did. We were talking about this before, and it’s astounding how much she gave up and she sacrificed just to NOT show any of this. It was a huge sacrifice. And an honest art and an honest portrait is really when you love something so much that you almost don’t want to share it, isn’t it?