Vivian Maier

This Academy Award nominated 2013 documentary contains an element of ‘what might have been’.

Vivian Maier was an amateur photographer who worked as a nanny & housekeeper. Prior to her death in 2009, nobody had ever seen her work. However, John Maloof (who co-directed the film with Charles Siskel) discovered some of her photographs at an auction and after Maier’s death, uncovered her life through interviews with people who knew her. Maloof subsequently scanned the images and put them on the Internet, where as you might have guessed, the images went viral.

Critical acclaim and interest in Maier’s work quickly followed, and since then, Maier’s photographs have been exhibited in North America, Europe, and Asia, while her life and work have been the subject of books and documentary films.

Maier was an eccentric spinster and a very private person, who took photographs obsessively. The photographs are striking and reveal a gift for capturing moments of emotional and intellectual weight. The documentary recounts Maloof’s efforts to find out as much as possible about the reclusive Maier.

It also examines our own attitudes towards art and artists. When you consider someone like Van Gogh who was unrecognised during his lifetime, at least Van Gogh was an artist intent on being successful, whereas Maier seemingly had no interest in exhibiting her work. Was this evidence of mental illness? Can the artistic impulse only be satisfied by public exposure, acceptance and recognition? Is it at all possible, to make art for yourself and yourself alone?

These are important questions which the film barely addresses – there is an inherent conclusion that because the work is so good, it deserves to be seen, whatever the actual wishes of the artist are/were. If taken out of the context of Maier’s daily life (as a nanny/housekeeper), would the work have lost its resonance and power? Who knows?

When Maier was an unknown, her work had no ‘value’ but once the public recognition came into the picture, so to speak, a value is then attached to the work. But should not the ‘value’ of the work be intrinsic, independent of how ‘popular’ it was? Having learnt a little about who Vivian Maier was through this film, it is fair to argue that given a choice, she probably would not have wanted the whole wide world looking at her work or even finding out who she is/was. Which leaves the viewer with mixed feelings by the time the movie concludes. You decide.

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