A Box of Her Own: On "Finding Vivian Maier"

Almost no one knew Vivian Maier. Until now.

By Haley MlotekApril 1, 2014

    A Box of Her Own: On "Finding Vivian Maier"

    VIVIAN MAIER was a nanny who lived and worked in Chicago beginning in 1956. She had few friends, never married, and had no children except the ones she was paid to care for. She died recently — in 2009 — and unremarkably, of a fall on ice, but really of old age. She was, presumably, lost. Almost no one knew her or of her. Until she was found. 

    In 2007, a man named John Maloof attended an auction and bid on a box of photographs. He was a real estate agent by profession and an amateur historian, a young man who had grown up working flea markets with his brother and father. His life was about finding and assigning value to undervalued things. To a man like John, $380 seemed like a good deal for a large box of undeveloped negatives. Perhaps there would be some photos he could use for a pet project on Chicago’s history. 

    Of course that box wasn't just a box. The box contained a vast treasure, a reward for John’s leap of faith. The box was Vivian’s box. There she had accumulated thousands of undeveloped negatives, a photography archive of unbelievable skill and vision, as well as everything she'd ever seen or touched. Clothes, books, papers, receipts, cameras — Vivian had held on to all of it. No one had noticed until the storage center had decided to auction it off and John found the collection, or the collection found John.

    Finding Vivian Maier is both Vivian’s story and the story of John Maloof’s discovery. Co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel (the producer of Bowling for Columbine), the documentary tells Maloof’s tale from beginning to a kind of end: how he found the box, tracked down the rest of the collection, and began creating an archive of Maier’s work. Maloof and Siskel find Maier’s former employers, predominantly middle-class white families living in suburban Chicago (including, somewhat hilariously, Phil Donahue), who tell them stories about Maier. They interview her acquaintances; she didn’t really have friends. The film ends on a happy, self-referential note. Maloof’s artistic labors, as he has documented them in the film, have unearthed Vivian Maier as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

    “We didn’t make a biopic,” Siskel told me over email. “We didn’t want to explore every little corner of her life.” Instead, the film is about how other people saw Vivian’s life. The film’s first scene features various people who knew Vivian describing her in one word; words like paradoxical, bold, mysterious, eccentric, private, which make her sound like the copy from a luxury car commercial. Later, when describing Vivian’s distinct walk, tall stature, and unapologetically strong opinions, her employers, nannying charges, neighbors, and acquaintances compare her to a Nazi soldier, a Soviet factory worker, and the Wicked Witch of the West.


    At the beginning of the film, Maloof lays out the contents of Vivian’s life — the possessions he now owns — for the camera. He creates grids and stacks to illustrate exactly how much material we have for understanding Vivan’s motivations and works. Vivian looks like a hoarder. Her life is made up of things in things, every object held inside another object. She has receipts, letters, uncashed checks from the government, clothes, luggage, newspaper clippings, trinkets, all stashed in boxes. The thousands of negatives and hours of 8mm film are the most intriguing, but they are just one part of a vast collection that Vivian could not let go of.

    According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the term hoarder is thrown around far too often. The most important element is the compulsion to hoard, of course, but most people who we think of as hoarders are actually collectors: people who take joy in finding a new thing, their brains releasing pleasurable cues at the moment of acquisition. Hoarders, on the other hand, don’t get the same pleasurable cues. They experience intense anxiety and fear at the idea of losing an object they’ve acquired. One of Vivian’s employers tells a story about how Vivian panicked after she heard that the week’s newspapers had been thrown out before she could include it in her collection, a reaction that is of course disproportionate to the loss she experienced, but only by our standards. If Vivian was a hoarder — someone who experienced real emotional distress at loss — then this collection becomes less about identifying an artist and more a tangible look at the compulsions that drove her.

    As a photographer, Vivian captured scenes, places, people — the elements of life that cannot be fixed, things that are either converted into memories that dim over time or discarded as unimportant and not worth preserving. As I watched image after image of Vivian’s work, I wondered if Vivian would have even called herself a photographer. Some interviewees in the documentary talk about her peculiar habit of calling herself a spy, giving fake names and false histories to the people she interacted with — a woman at a pawn shop, a man at the library — instructing them to call her V. Smith, Vivian Mayer, and other such versions of her real name.

    Her profession is an important part of the documentary’s structure. Her brief time as an employee at a sweatshop in New York is offered as the incentive that drove her to seek work as a nanny, a job where she could be relatively free to wander outdoors with her camera. The children she cared for are interviewed and tell stories about wandering all over Chicago, how Maier was unafraid to go to the “scarier” neighborhoods — less wealthy, less white, less manicured neighborhoods — where she could take photos and engage with the people she came across on the street. Her bosses, sweet parents and probably very kind employers, talk about how Vivian always identified as “working class” first and foremost, and I wish the documentary expanded on why that was considered an unusual attitude for her to assume. After all, at this time, Vivian’s photography was just a quirk, a hobby, something she did while keeping the kids active and happy; there is no indication that Vivian, like the baristas and retail shopgirls and other service laborers of today, was upfront about her paying job being a means to an artistic end. She was working class as a nanny, and free board in a suburban Chicago home didn’t change that. If anything, it seems like her strong proclamations about being somehow different, class-wise, than her employers, made them more uncomfortable than it did her. One employer tells a story about urging Vivian to go see a doctor, to which Vivian replied, “The poor are too poor to die.”

    When the subjects of Finding Vivian Maier remember her distinctive outfits and her peculiar walk and strange affectations, the obvious pop culture comparison comes up: Mary Poppins, the other nanny who floated in from an indeterminate location, complete with a bag of tricks and a mysterious history, unafraid to jump into a whole other world with another working class man. Mary Poppins is not an unfair comparison. I thought of the Disney film in which Mary Poppins chastises a father consumed by capitalism and not familial devotion, and a mother consumed by first-wave feminism and not her maternal instincts. Vivian also liked to wander into politically charged arenas, making films that were their own mini-documentaries, wandering into grocery stores and asking cashiers their opinions on the news headlines of the day, prodding a woman who was hesitant to comment on Nixon’s impeachment: “Women are supposed to have an opinion, I hope. Come on.”

    But I don’t believe that Vivian was like Mary Poppins because being a nanny didn’t seem to be her calling. Nor do I think being a nanny was a ruse to cover up her complicated identity as an artist. She was a woman who installed locks on her doors, who did not develop the archive of negatives she accumulated, who rarely spoke of her photos (that we know of). She was also a woman who marched anywhere she wanted, anytime, who confronted people politically, who engaged with other people about the realities of her life as a service worker — this does not sound like a woman who hid her photos out of demure shyness. Finding Vivian Maier made me wonder about the possibility that Vivian identified more strongly as a nanny than she did as an artist: an unbearably elitist title that elevates socially, if not financially.

    Vivian liked too-good-to-be-true headlines, the kinds of stories you can only see in newspapers and never in fiction: “Man Bites Dog,” that sort of thing. Siskel told me, when I asked about whether Vivian would have enjoyed being the subject of so much attention, that Vivian “knew a great story when she heard one. We would like to think this is exactly the kind of story Vivian would have appreciated. ‘Nanny takes 100,000 photos and hides them in storage lockers, but they’re discovered years later and she becomes a famous artist.’ That’s the kind of story Vivian would have liked.” I agree. But it’s not clear if that’s the kind of story Vivian wanted to tell.


    One acquaintance talks about Vivian’s voice, which we briefly hear on recordings. It’s a deep voice with a slight French accent. Barry Wallis was a graduate student at Northwestern University when he met her. They spoke while he was working at the university’s language lab and says she “affected a fake accent.” “I have a PhD in linguistics,” Wallis says, “and the truth is, it was a fake accent.”

    He may have the credentials, but Vivian was actually French. Her mother was born and raised in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur and the family returned there when Vivian was about five, where she spent the majority of her childhood. Hers was either a real accent mangled by a childhood spent on two continents, or a fake accent she affected to hide her real voice — to try on another type of person she could be.

    Maloof returns to France in the film with a letter Vivian wrote to a photo developer there, asking him to print some of her photos with very specific instructions on paper quality. Maloof says this proves that she did want her photos to be seen by the masses, that she considered her photos good and worthy of attention, but that’s debatable. It only proves that Vivian wanted to see her photographs developed, and she did so in a manner connected to her childhood memories.

    We will never know, really, what Vivian did or didn’t want to happen to her collection. It’s possible that she didn’t really know, or that what drove her had less to do with creative expression and more to do with her compulsive behavior. We can’t know because we can’t ask her. This is one thing that Vivian has in common with many other female artists who can no longer speak for themselves. The female artist who is literally unable to communicate her intentions has surpassed cliché. She appears as a kind of prophecy. Even if she does achieve a certain level of fame or recognition, there are still those who want to rob her of her agency, her worthiness.

    So I am tempted to simply enjoy the documentary as what it is, a fascinating story that could only be true, the kind of thing that happens once in a lifetime, a character study of one truly unique female individual that we almost never knew existed. What stops me is the knowledge that marginalizing female artists doesn’t stop at the grave. Making art as a woman has to mean something — it is always seen as politically motivated. This is another way, along with working as nannies and shopgirls and the like, women are kept consistently, always, in service to some employer. A woman’s art cannot just exist, and it certainly cannot go unseen once it does exist. The idea that Vivian had no interest in being a subject of any attention, even if it is undeniably positive and celebratory, is just not entertained because there is no model for understanding a female artist by that standard. If she had expressed ambivalence or exuberance over the recognition, we’ll never know — and the film only shows us what the people who were once around her think about it, people who knew her only at a great distance even when she was alive.

    Maloof, as I mentioned, was working as a real estate agent before he bought as much of Vivian’s collection that he could find. Today he says he is a photographer and a filmmaker as well. “If it weren't for my discovery of Maier's negatives I wouldn't be a photographer and filmmaker,” he says over email. “It was through my experiences learning photography that I eventually realized that Maier's work was really good.” This is yet another way that Vivian is forever in service to someone other than herself.

    Finding Vivian Maier is a necessary documentary, and a necessary story, because it’s an addition to the female artist canon that defies any pat explanation or precedent we have. Worker, caregiver, subject, object — Vivian was making it all up as she went along, consistently developing an identity based on a collection she built, a combination of physical objects and the physical creation of memories on film. The photographs were a part of the identity, of course, but it’s hard to tell how much importance Vivian herself would have given to her practice. Had she lived to see the documentary or embraced the chance to tell her own story, she might have told us that she would rather be seen as a worker first, or that her collection was a compulsion and not something she did for pleasure — complicated emotions that cloud any traditional narratives about finding fame and recognition. I’m glad I found Vivian when I did, and glad that Maloof and Siskel have shared her story with us, but her place in our collective archive might defy our existing narratives for how female artists should live and work.


    Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal.

    LARB Contributor

    Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, The New Inquiry, and Hazlitt, among others. She lives in Toronto.


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