By Simon Miraudo
July 4, 2014
Separating the art from the artist – or the sandwich art from the sandwich artist – is sticky stuff. Maybe impossible. Inappropriate, even. But what if the art has separated itself from the artist; is lost and only found after the artist has abandoned their creative pursuits, and appreciated despite their creator’s true identity being nearly inscrutable? Does digging into their past – perhaps intentionally made obscure – give that art greater depth? Does it make the life of the late artist more valuable? Or does it besmirch something pure when the artist’s more unsavoury aspects come to light?
These are the questions faced by John Maloof. The Chicagoan purchased a $400 box of anonymous photos in the mid-2000s and found inside a treasure trove of incisive, indelible, American street photography from the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s; all, amazingly, captured in secret by a working nanny named Vivian Maier. In his documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel seek to give their enigmatic subject her due, uncovering further negatives (around 100,000) and amusing videos. Convincing us of her talent is easy. What’s significantly more difficult a task is piecing together the experiences that formed it; before she ultimately succumbed to the mental illness that always flirted just beneath the surface of her curious personality.
Something like a cross between Stories We Tell, a patchwork quilt of a doco that pays tribute to director Sarah Polley‘s mother through blended home movies and re-enactments, and Frank, a fictional tale about a musician whose internal, emotional struggles colour (and are also cured by) his music, Finding Vivian Maier is an exquisite portrait of an almost-lost icon. The talking heads who attempt to characterise Vivian – many of them her former charges – can barely reach a consensus on what she liked to be called, how to spell her name, or if her vaguely-European accent was even real. And yet, her negative is slowly exposed, revealing fully the troubled, fiercely funny, sometimes abusive, and fiendishly talented photographer hiding behind her omnipresent Rolleiflex camera.
Though the film, at first, feels like a self-congratulatory attempt by Maloof to make his discovery (rather than Maier’s actual work) seem the triumphant achievement, it doesn’t take long for her powerful pictures to overshadow the very competent movie containing them (which does a fine job of contextualisation). The videos are even more valuable, at least in regards to giving us a glimpse at the woman shooting them, such as the moment in which she presses a female passer-by to give her thoughts on a hot button issue, saying, “women are supposed to be opinionated.” A professor recalls Vivian’s explanation for her fevered photo-taking (none ever submitted for publication): “I’m sort of a spy.” That she was. For decades, without anyone knowing, she etched several generations of Americans into eternity. Maloof and Siskel have made a very watchable flick, however their truly significant act – sort of like Domhnall Gleeson in Frank – is reintroducing the world to an important, nearly-forgotten figure. Artists in service of other artists. No separation necessary.
Finding Vivian Maier plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival July 5, 8, 12 and 13.