Finding the “Mystery Woman” of Street Photography

Sarah Coleman talks with co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel about bringing the hidden story of street photographer Vivian Maier to life.

Vivian Maier never wanted to be famous. Working as a nanny in 1950s Chicago, Maier always locked her bedroom door and insisted her employers never enter her space. Though she didn’t hesitate to stick a camera into other people’s faces, she disliked giving people her name and referred to herself as “the mystery woman.” If not for a series of lucky accidents, Maier would have stayed unknown. Instead, she’s now being celebrated as one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers.

The intriguing story of Maier, and how she was discovered, is told in the charming new documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. At once a mystery, an artist portrait, and a tribute to a complicated woman, the film is a bittersweet delight. In a world increasingly dedicated to vapid self-promotion, it’s a reminder that sometimes, art is just about the purity of perception and self-expression.

It was Maloof who, in 2007, stumbled on Maier’s work in an auction house. An amateur historian, he was looking for photographs to illustrate a book he was writing on local history. Seeing some boxes of negatives on a side table, he snapped them up. “At first, I didn’t see much I thought was incredible work,” Maloof recently told The Independent. It wasn’t until he started learning photography himself that a light began to dawn and he saw how artful and empathetic Maier’s street portraits were. At that point, he said, “I realized her work was better than my initial assumptions.”

Maloof started editing the work, printing it and putting it online–asking Flickr viewers, “What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?” He also began making efforts to find out more about the mysterious Maier, who—according to a local newspaper obituary—had recently died. “When I found out she was a nanny, I thought it was so fascinating that it would make a great documentary,” he said. “I’d assumed she was a journalist.”

The more Maloof investigated, the stranger the story became. While some of Maier’s former charges remembered her as a maternal, Mary Poppins type, others recalled her as aloof and terrifying. The only thing everyone could agree on was how eccentric she was, with her strange accent, floppy hats, and pack rat tendencies (she was obsessed with both people and objects). These days, she’d be a shoo-in for the reality show Hoarders.

At the same time, Maier’s work was going viral. People were responding strongly to the online images, with comments ranging from, “It’s 4 am here in Beijing and I’m entranced by her shots,” to “I strongly feel that there should be a big retrospective show and a book. I would totally buy a book about her.” The press started to call; there were requests for exhibitions. It was, Maloof said, a “domino effect” that kept going, leading to where he is now: the owner of a huge archive, editor of two books on Maier, and co-director of a feature documentary.

Realizing that the project was growing by the minute, Maloof started thinking about finding a co-director for his movie. At around that time, he was contacted by Jeff Garlin, a Chicago-based actor, comedian and photo enthusiast who’d seen local television coverage of the story. Garlin then contacted Michael Moore, who suggested putting Maloof in contact with Charlie Siskel, one of his producers on Bowling for Columbine.

“I knew about the Vivian Maier story, and said I’d love to get involved,” Siskel recalled. Once the two were partnered, however, they faced struggles typical to independent filmmakers. Getting the film financed was their first hurdle. “It was hard,” Maloof admitted. “Charlie and I financed almost all the film ourselves, with help on pre-production through a Kickstarter campaign.”

Next came the problem of structure: Maier’s story needed to be intertwined with the improbable tale of how Maloof discovered her. “The tough work of the film was figuring out how to tell Vivian’s story first and foremost, then also tell John’s story.” Siskel said. “Also, we wanted to make a film that would measure up in some way to Vivian’s photographs, be worthy of the subject matter and not just be a biopic.”

In the end, the two solved the problem by using Maier’s photographs, voice recordings, and Super 8 films, and intertwining this archival material with interviews with Maier’s former charges, time-lapse images of Maier’s belongings accumulating, and an interview with Maloof himself. “We debated things like, should we have experts talking about her photography and its place in history?” Siskel said. “We decided not to have a lot of that, because we thought Vivian’s story could be told in a more artful way.”

Midway through filming, Maloof and Siskel were hit with a surprise: a former charge of Maier’s revealed a darker, more abusive side of her character. “That was a huge deal when we heard it,” said Maloof. Discussing the issue, he and Siskel decided to present the information as objectively as possible and let viewers decide how they felt about it. Ultimately, Siskel said, they saw the alleged abuse “in the context of a much bigger story” in which “people remember Vivian fondly in general.”

All this brings up the difficult subject of how the keenly private Maier would feel about her posthumous fame—would she be horrified or gratified? It’s impossible to know, of course. Unlike Emily Dickinson, she never sought wide attention for her work during her lifetime; unlike Franz Kafka, she didn’t give instructions that everything she produced should be burned. She left hundreds of rolls of film undeveloped, suggesting that seeing her images printed was unimportant to her; on the other hand, she took many self-portraits, implying that she wanted to be seen and remembered, if only by herself.

One thing seems clear, though: we shouldn’t feel sorry for Maier. Working as a nanny gave her freedom to pursue her passion, even when it meant dragging dubious children to sketchy areas of Chicago. “She got the life she wanted,” one of her grown charges says in the film—or, as Siskel put it, “she lived life fully, given the constraints she was living under.” Now, through a serendipitous find that almost didn’t happen, the world can encounter her life and work.

Finding Vivian Maier opens on March 28th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center in New York and on April 11th in other select cities in the United States.

Share this Article:
Print this pageEmail this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on Reddit