Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscars 2014: Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier (2014) directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 83 minutes

One Oscar Nomination
Best Documentary

This odd, interesting woman with an insatiable need to photograph and document all she saw - seemingly without friends and family - who cared for children as a nanny (sometimes not so well) remains much a mystery to us in 2015.

She worked in Chicago and its suburbs caring for children but ended her days alone, on the verge of destitution, and had no known heirs. She took thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of photos of children, strangers, anything that caught her eye on the streets of Chicago, but told very few her interests.

In 2007, John Maloof, one of the directors of he doc, bid on an unexamined box of negatives knowing only the name of the photographer and nothing more. Cursory searches on the Internet revealed nothing and then in 2009, Maier's obituary surfaced in the Chicago Tribune. Maier had literally died a few days before Maloof's search.

What do we know of her now through this documentary? She was private to the point of paranoia. She was a hoarder of many things most notably newspapers that cluttered her apartments threatening to overwhelm the space. She had relations in Europe but no or little contact with them. She had a curiosity about people - and often would query strangers on political issues that she kept on audio tapes. She often visited "the wrong part of town" and parades and stockyards (often with the children in her care in tow) to take an astonishing array of photos. 

To the directors' credit, they do not shy away from testimonials that speak of her coldness, her cruelty to children at times, her strangeness ... but this is balanced by cheerful, happy memories on the part of her employers and wards. Two of the children she cared for even helped her financially at the end of her life.

She photographed the homeless, some stunning, perfectly appointed beauties on the street, working men, clowns, crying or distraught children, amorous couples, mothers seemingly beleaguered by their children or their woes ... On the streets, on the beach, in backyards, she was impervious to barriers of class, wealth, race, social status.

The obvious comparison has been with the American photographer Diane Arbus but I would argue that Arbus was attracted to the beauty of the unique or the strange, Maier to the beauty of the mundane.

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