By Bill Arceneaux
The consensus of all the people interviewed is clear: Vivian Maier was a loner with an eye for humanity. She left behind a trove of beautiful photographs, developed and undeveloped, found at the last minute in a storage unit meant for the dumpster. Despite how close she got her camera to her subjects (even ones who weren’t aware), she made sure to keep almost everything about herself private – no phone, no permanent address, no willingness to give out her real name.
A nomadic observer – why, and at what cost to her? Finding Vivian Maier is a valiant attempt at finding answers, even if the ones that matter were in front of us all along.
Based on the information pulled from a paper trail of hoarded receipts and newspapers, memories from those that came in contact with her and the photographs themselves, we get a picture of a woman who at once secluded by choice and connecting with others vicariously. Her camera and her eyes are her sense of touch, affording her a kind of sensory comfort. Eccentric is commonly used to describe her, but I’d be willing to bet she had an undiagnosed disability. Or some kind of past trauma. Or both.
She made a living as a nanny, which afforded her the ability to float in and out of people’s lives with ease, and live relatively off the grid while making use of her hobby/passion. She never got too attached, but always left an impression. Some of the children she cared for remember her as whimsical, while some can’t forget how mean she could be. I can easily picture her with an umbrella, flying from home to home, leading kids on fun adventures, but never giving them sugar to go with any medicine.
Finding Vivian Maier frames itself around a collector’s obsessive research into the photographer behind the pictures. Unfortunately, the trail does dead end and go dry, without delivering details that the audience (and I’m sure the collector, too) would like to have. Then again, everything we need to know – and probably all that Vivian wanted us to know – remain in the photos she took. It’s interesting to know why and who, but sometimes the what matters most. And this what is rather amazing.
For me, the most penetrating moment came in the form of the discovery of a film Vivian made. It’s part investigative and part imaginative, tracing the steps of a murdered woman and pondering on what really happened. It’s haunting that she made it, and more so that it didn’t see the light of day until after Vivian’s death. Her eye for framing and mind for editing, in that film, was downright (Werner) Herzogian. While the movie about her may not hit those heights, it just might give others the spark they need to go out and shoot. To go out and discover. Hurry up.
Finding Vivian Maier plays at The Manship Theatre on Tuesday, August 12th at 7PM.
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Best Moment: Seeing the short film she made about a woman’s murder.
Worst Moment: Not knowing her full history.
Advice: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.