The old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” takes a curious twist in writers/directors John Maloof’s and Charlie Siskel’s portrait of nanny-with-a-twin-lens-Rolleiflex, Vivian Maier (or, at times, Meyer, Meyers, Maiers…Smith). In this case, the gifted photographer’s pictures (~150,000) ask a seemingly equal number of questions: Why did the spinster New Yorker speak with a mid-Atlantic French accent? What caused the estrangement from all of her family members? Why hoard floor-to ceiling stacks of newspapers? How many times did she abuse (never sexually, we are led to believe by the lack of instances recalled by many of her charges and their parents who dominate the extensive proportion of interviews) or beat the children in her care? Why the insistence of a padlock on her bedroom door?
But perhaps the most compelling mystery of all: Why—except for a meagre attempt at selling her landscapes for postcards in Europe—did she never “push” her art into the world?
As interesting as the interviews are—replete with memories from Phil Donahue who once employed her—it is the actual pictures and Super-8 videos shown in the production that provide the strongest, most satisfying moments. Best in class are the marvellously honest, intimate portraits of people from skid row to high society, captured for a shared moment between willing subject and voracious shot seeker—clearly, they trusted the unassuming, severely dressed artist.
Had it not been for Maloof’s nose for unexpected finds at auctions and flea markets, the boxes and boxes of negatives and still-to-be-developed rolls of film might never have seen the light of day or safelight of the darkroom. The discovery is similar to Mendelssohn’s reintroduction of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew—greatness has to be recognized as the first step of bringing hidden-away masterpieces to the public. Otherwise—like so many exquisitely crafted quilts sitting unused, unseen in attics around the globe—no one will ever know what has been lost.
On several occasions, narrator Maloof makes the point that the world’s mainstream museums (e.g., MoMA) are not ready to give their “blessing” to the unknown artist. There is some truth to that as the actual prints were made from the negatives—not by Maier, but by others. Inevitably during that process, artistic decisions have to be made: What to crop?; the enlarger’s aperture settings; paper selection—even framing. That’s somewhat like having the recipe, but employing another to cobble the ingredients together—no two chefs would come up with the same result.
And perhaps Maier was smarter than many in the film give her credit for. Having a miserable family, would the familial occupation of being a nanny not fill that personal void? With daily excursions to and fro with the children, might not “photo ops” appear around every corner? (Certainly many more than factory work would ever allow.) In a sense, she managed to get paid while practising her art. As to the lack of any social life, and given her “look,” perhaps the woman spent a lifetime pushing away the demons of her sexual preferences, content to immerse herself in other people’s truths, rather than face up to her own. Yet another question to fathom.
Weaving the pictures and interviews into a compelling whole are Maloof’s highly inventive cinematography (not so many talking heads as usual in documentaries) and J. Ralph’s narrative-sensitive score (knowing instinctively when it’s time for mallets, guitar, celeste or harp to step into the spotlight; the only caution being some unexpectedly messy pizzicati from the strings).
Incredibly, magically, there is an entirely satisfying sense of closure—questions be damned—when the last self-portrait reveals—somewhat in reverse of Dorian Gray—that Maier has come full circle and is at one with the thousands of other subjects she went to so many pains to capture. JWR