“Finding Vivian Maier” (2014)

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

finding_vivian_maier

Out on DVD this week is this documentary (which I was lucky enough to catch with Paleo Retiree at the IFC Center) about the photographer and Internet phenom that I thought was enjoyable if unsatisfying. For those who don’t know, Maier worked for decades as a nanny in the Chicago area. A prickly recluse in life, after she died a massive trove of tens of thousands of photographs, many of them candid street shots, was discovered. Maier took these photos throughout her lifetime but made virtually no attempts to share them with anyone else. Who was Maier and where did she come from? Where did her artistic drive come from? Why did she never try to publish them? These are the main questions posed by writer-directors John Maloof, one of three persons who discovered the Maier lode, and Charlie Siskel.

Maloof, who appears on-camera as guide and narrator, does a good job of following leads and telling Maier’s story — I was consistently engaged throughout — but he makes an odd assumption and leaves some threads dangling. First, as PR pointed out when we chatted after the movie, Maloof assumes from the outset that Maier’s work is of high aesthetic and historic quality. Gosh golly, he just can’t imagine why MoMA or other museums aren’t clamoring for her work. Dude, her pictures were discovered five years ago. Reputations aren’t built overnight and MoMA already has enough on its plate. I guess Maloof’s boosterism is unsurprising, though, given his financial interest as owner of much of Maier’s work. Second, the filmmakers skirt around the fact that, um, it’s fairly clear she was a man-hating lesbian. Maybe the NPR crowd (Maloof could be a This American Life correspondent) wants their artzgayz cute and cuddly like Bill Cunningham and doesn’t really know what to make of those who don’t fit that mold. Finally, the filmmakers detail Maier’s paranoia and hoarding — she kept tons of newspapers and other ephemera — but never connect that her obsessive photography was likely a manifestation of her compulsion to collect and save. At least when it comes to Maier, the movie makes a case for a link between art and madness without quite realizing it.

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About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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11 Responses to “Finding Vivian Maier” (2014)

  1. agnostic says:

    Did they try to account for why she took so many selfies, other than the usual female self-absorption? Her face is unexpressive, just looking a little nervous. And she doesn’t have striking features, whether attractive or grotesque — just a big nose.

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    • They don’t try to account for it other than, well, she took pictures of everything else, so why not herself? A person carries around a camera for years, it’s inevitable that they’ll point it at a mirror now and again.

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  2. Nice writeup. You really catch what a strange creature Vivian Maier was. Do you dig her photos much?

    As for the WeeGee — I guess we’d call it a Creepshot these days, right? How could we not? Yet, despite the amount of photography that was being done in those days, much of it candid, the Creepshot category is a very recent invention. Why do we (some of us, anyway) feel the need to call some photos Creepshots while people in the ’40s and ’50s didn’t? Is it really because we’re more enlightened than they were?

    Do we suppose that the young woman in WeeGee’s photo would have felt offended by it (assuming the unlikely — that she actually ran across the photo at some point)? And what’s the likelihood that she’d have gone aggressively political about it? Isn’t there also the possibility that, running across the pic, she’d have burst out in laughter and found it a hoot? (Why don’t the Jezebel girls react that way?) And, besides, isn’t “young women consciously showing off as well as inadvertently (and, of course, semi-inadvertently) revealing themselves” a legit part of Life’s Big Panorama? Why shouldn’t it be documented, and marveled at, along with everything else? Isn’t that a big part of what we do with photographs — document life as we run across it? It’s bizarre to pick one part of life and say, “No, you shouldn’t document it.” How would we feel if someone said, “No, you really shouldn’t document war,” or family gatherings, or meals, or vacations?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah, perhaps I should’ve mentioned that — I *do* like Maier’s photos. I’m not knowledgable enough to know whether I’m just responding to them b/c I like vintage pictures from that era or whether the photos are “objectively” great, but yeah, I enjoyed the montages in the movie and I’ve liked browsing through her stuff online.

      As for the Weegee photo, that picture was displayed in a series taken in movie theaters. Some of the captions note he used infrared film to capture the images, others (like the photo in question) contain no such note. Does it matter that the photo was taken in the dark and does it matter what kind of film he used?

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  3. I think there may be far more reclusive artists out there than we know. For one thing the technical capability to make art has been vastly expanded. Anyone who really wants to can fill their basement with photos, recordings, videos etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. The idea that we know, or even CAN know, about all the gifted and talented people who’ve done (and who do) good work is crazy. Profs, critics, journalists and stuffy people who claim otherwise are idiots.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. agnostic says:

    Re: the WeeGee “creepshot or not,” I wonder if generational differences were at play back then as they are now. Today it’s mostly Millennials, who grew up socially sheltered, driving the whole pattern of “OMG, public places must obey my own rules!”

    Those pics that WeeGee took in movie theaters are from the early ’40s, and the maker-outers (and unintentional flashers like the one above) look to be in their late teens and 20s, not school-age adolescents. That would put them in the late Greatest Gen cohort, born circa 1915-’24 — along with the sailor-and-nurse pair photographed in the Times Square kiss on V-J Day. They came before the Silent Generation, which is more like ’25-’44 births.

    My impression is that the Silents were more awkward about public spaces as young adults. They weren’t going to make out in an open movie theater, but shielded and obscured by a tank of a car at the drive-in. Why go out to a public movie theater if you’re going to insist on everyone boxing themselves off while in such close proximity?

    The difference between Greatest Gen and Silent Gen is analogous to the split between Gen X and Millennials. The childhood and formative years of the Greatest Gen was the Jazz Age, akin to Gen X growing up in the New Wave Age. Outgoing, oriented toward public places. The formative years of the Silents was the more atomized Midcentury, akin to Millennials growing up in this newly atomized world of ours from the past 20-25 years. Cocooning, oriented toward the private sphere.

    So perhaps comfort level with your body when it’s in public view shows a lasting effect of your formative years. Folks who were raised in a public-oriented climate continue not to care whether strangers are looking at them in public (per se — only if they were getting dirty looks), while those raised in a cocooning climate continue to feel awkward and suspicious when strangers look at them in public.

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