‘I am Vivian Maier.”
John Maloof is joking, of course. Vivian Maier was a woman – picture Miss Hathaway crossed with Mary Poppins – and has been dead since April, 2009. He’s a guy – if the Proclaimers were triplets, he’d be one of them – and very much alive.
Still, there’s a certain truth to Maloof’s declaration, made during an interview in Toronto. For if anyone can claim to have an intimate knowledge of Maier – to be obsessed by a woman who for four decades served as a nanny in Chicago, only to become, in the years after her death at 83, an internationally famous photographer – Maloof is the one. After all, it was this former real-estate salesman, amateur historian and flea-market habitué who, one fateful fall day in 2007, paid $380 (U.S.) to a Chicago auctioneer for a box of about 30,000 black-and-white negatives repossessed from a local storage locker.
Twenty-six at the time, Maloof didn’t really know what he’d acquired; the hope was that somewhere in those negatives were pictures of Portage Park, an old neighbourhood in northwest Chicago about which Maloof was helping to write a history. As it turned out, the box contained nothing of that ilk, and a disappointed Maloof shoved the trove into a closet in his house.
Luckily, he didn’t leave it there. Today those 30,000 images are the cornerstone of a personal collection numbering more than 100,000 negatives and slides, 3,000-plus prints, several hundred rolls of film (currently in cold storage in Chicago), dozens of home movies, umpteen audiotapes, and much else, including clothes, hats and uncashed Social Security cheques. They all once belonged to Maier, who died, unmarried and childless, unnoticed and mostly unmourned, but who has since been recognized as one of the most significant street photographers of the 20th century.
“Had she made herself known, she would have been a famous photographer,” says Mary Ellen Mark, herself, at 74, an acclaimed photographer often referenced in discussions about Maier. But because the secretive, mysterious Maier did not, the task has been taken on by Maloof. And so far, it’s been so good – even if, as Maloof confesses, there have been times when he hasn’t “done a very good job of preserving my sanity.”
For Maloof – who had no background in photography before coming upon the Maier photographs, and who took a crash course in the subject only after being inspired by her work – the last four years have seen a spate of Maloof-orchestrated Maier exhibitions and books, news stories and TV features, magazine articles, public slide shows, online forums and, yes, commercial sales. All of that has unfolded against a backdrop of Maloof’s developing, scanning and archiving Maier’s prodigious output.
Now, in another stunning career pivot on the part of Maloof, comes a feature-length movie, Finding Vivian Maier, which he co-wrote, co-produced, co-directed, mostly shot and, in effect, co-stars in. After a world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it is having its theatrical release this month and next in selected U.S. and Canadian centres.
Maloof began work on the documentary in 2010, eliciting crowd-funding from Kickstarter for preproduction costs, including research and the filming of interviews with Maier acquaintances. Along the way, the project caught the attention of another Chicagoan, Jeff Garlin, a man best known as an actor (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mad About You) and producer but who is also a photography collector. Sensing that Maloof might need a hands-on collaborator for his big-screen project, Garlin placed a call to his friend Michael Moore for advice. It was Moore who recommended Charlie Siskel – another Chicagoan, albeit one transplanted to California – who had worked as a producer on the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine. “We spoke the same language right from the very beginning,” Siskel says of Maloof. By year’s end, Siskel was Finding Vivian Maier’s co-writer, co-director and co-producer.
In larger part, the film is a detective story, documenting as it does Maloof and Siskel’s meetings with genealogists and with Maier’s former employers and charges – she worked with many families, but also travelled the world – and their rummaging through files and records. Their goal: to figure out who this Vivian Maier was, and to quote Siskel, why she lived “this double life, masquerading as the nanny, the help, to make room for this other part of her life as a photographer.” Then there’s Maloof meeting with Mark and fellow street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, straining to fathom the depths of Maier’s genius as they scan her wares.
In all, Siskel and Maloof met 90 individuals who had some association with Maier, and interviewed half of them. And while the film does shed considerable, sometimes unsettling light on Maier’s history, the two men are the first to admit it doesn’t “expose every corner” of the photographer’s life, nor was it their intention to do so. “We just wanted to tell a compelling story,” observes Siskel.
Maloof, meanwhile, stands to become, if not rich, then comfortable on Maier – if he hasn’t done so already. It is estimated his Maier collection includes about 80 per cent of her known output. Yet Maloof insists his intentions are honourable and remain unchanged from the moment he was first charmed by what she’d captured with her Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex – namely, “to put Vivian in the history books.”
That seems pretty much assured. Institutionally, however, it’s been another story. While Maloof has enlisted prominent New York photography gallerist Howard Greenberg as the sole seller of Maier originals, those prints have yet to enter the collections of major art institutions. In large part, that’s one more result of Maier’s obsessively secretive life – and posthumous fame: Institutions prefer photographs printed for exhibition by the artists themselves, or at least printed and edited for exhibition at the artists’s direction. Maier did make prints—by and large not good ones, according to Maloof, and not the ones that have secured her fame. The people, in the meantime, haven’t sweated these protocols of canonization. They’ve already given their benediction.
Finding Vivian Maier opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal on March 28. It plays in Victoria, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg for limited runs in April. Check local listings.