Just caught up with this movie which was released in mid-July of this year. My local art house offered a second bite of the cherry and, boy, am I glad they did because this is a superb piece of work that rewards the viewer with a multi-layered, multi-faceted experience which I am extremely glad to have seen. With its low-key black and white poster and the fact that it is a documentary, it would be easy to ignore or reject this movie. Don’t. It is a first class example of the art of the big screen documentary, and as good as Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010), if not better.
John Maloof buys a lot of square format black and white negatives in an auction, a lot which includes the effects of the photographer, Vivian Maier. He prints a few and realises very quickly that here is a candid street photographer of prodigious talent, on a par with Lartigues, Bresson, Capra, Arbus etc. Why have they never been seen before and why do we know nothing about the photographer?
The lot is a lot in both senses of the words. He has on his hands in excess of sixty thousand negatives along with many hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. Maloof raises the question as to why MOMA refuses to recognise the obvious quality of this work (unanswered at the time of writing), but this is only one strand of the documentary. Far more fascinating and affecting are his attempts to understand the identity and character of the reclusive Maier.
What emerges is a quirky loner who spent most of her life working as a nanny in Chicago and New York. One of the most interesting things to emerge is her OCD which manifested itself in her need to collect newspapers, piles of which filled her room and spilled over in to the houses of her employers; and which possibly accounted for the sheer volume and frequency of the pictures she took. Her Rolleiflex was almost a part of her anatomy and she used it again and again every time she went out – which was almost daily. What is, stunning, however, is that quantity seems in no way to have diminished quality. She often headed deliberately for the most downtrodden neighbourhoods. Her pictures are beautifully and instinctively framed, and capture moments of heightened emotion from the raw and visceral to the tender and loving.
There seems to have been little warmth and tenderness in her own life. Her early years and even her country of origin are shrouded in mystery. She claimed to be French, but this may have been elaborate deception. There is evidence that she was physically abused as a child. If so, it might account for extremes of temperament which prompted some of her infant charges to remember her for her harshness and cruelty, and others to remain loyal and affectionate and to look out for her in her old age.
The biggest mystery of all. Apart from a handful of prints which she commissioned from a French studio, an estimated hundred thousand negatives were never printed. Was this because she did not have the money or technical acumen to do this herself (or commission a professional printer); or was it a deliberate decision by an immensely private individual for whom the act of shooting the picture was satisfaction enough? Who knows?