In 2007, John Maloof bid on a box of negatives at a Chicago auction house, hoping to find images to illustrate a history book he was writing. What he got was a treasure chest of negatives left behind by a woman who’s now being hailed as the greatest photographic find of the twenty-first century. Finding Vivian Maier, codirected by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, is the story of John Maloof’s obsessive quest to discover why Vivian Maier would take 100,000 pictures and keep them all under lock and key, while working as a nanny to hide her true identity as a photographer. •Availability: Opens March 28, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York City, with a national rollout. Go to findingvivianmaier.com for local listings. •Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.•
DT: John, as amazing as Vivian Maier’s narrative is, yours is equally astonishing; you acquired her negatives by chance and subsequently devoted your life to making her story known. Do you ever have doubts about what you’re doing, and do you ever think, What am I going to do post-Vivian?
JM: Doubts are no longer even a possibility, because I have such a responsibility to make sure her work is taken care of. Early on I did, when I was buying the work from other buyers. When I was buying them, the price kept going up and up, because the story was circulating on the internet and people were charging more and more. I ended up spending a lot of money, and I kept saying to myself, What am I doing? I can’t afford this. Now there’s no doubt, but I think about what I’m going to do post-Vivian all the time. This has taken up a lot of my life.
DT: You dug up her relatives in France by locating a village that had the same steeple depicted in two of her images. That piece of dogged detective work was just mind-blowing.
JM: The one question was always, Where are the relatives? There had to be some answers in the relatives. So we looked at some photos from 1949 or 50—they’re not dated, but that’s when she was there last, so we’re guessing they’re 1950-ish—and then from 1959. I noticed the same steeple, so I thought, This has got to be the place. Why would she come back to the same exact place? Then I found the steeple from the village that matched the one in the photos, and I got genealogists to help with last-name searches, backward genealogy research, and we found her people.
DT: When you interview Joel Meyerowitz, he says, “I don’t feel Vivian as secondary. When I look at her, I feel something primary.” What do you think he meant?
CS: I think Joel was talking about her place in the history of photography. Everyone’s work is derivative. That’s true in writing, and photography—any art. Even those who are true originals are at least aware of what others are doing and in some form of conversation with other artists. While Vivian wasn’t formally taught to the best we’ve been able to determine, she was definitely a student of the medium and she was aware of other photographers. I think he was making the point that she was an original; her work is not borrowing from other people, she’s not mimicking other people’s styles, she certainly experimented with different subject matter and styles. When Mary Ellen Mark compares her to some other photographers, including Diane Arbus, that photo was taken before Diane Arbus’s work, and was just one of a number of different styles and subject matter that Vivian was interested in.
DT: Someone said, “You don’t know who she is from looking at her photographs.” But Joel Meyerowitz talked about her shooting style as “getting into somebody’s space, being herself, and then she’s gone.” Maybe you get a sense of who Vivian was from deconstructing her process rather than her work.
JM: Yeah, I think you do. If you look at her contact sheets, you notice that there are not many photographs that she does multiple takes of. Number one, she’s frugal, and she doesn’t have much money, so she makes sure she has the framing and the shot and everything right before she takes it. But I think she wasn’t going out to get something specific. It wasn’t like, Oh I need to go and find a homeless man today and take his photo, and then when she finds it she just unloads her camera on him. She was a wanderer, and she liked to explore urban areas especially, the not-so-perfect areas of the city, like the Maxwell Street flea market, where there’s a lot of stolen goods and people not paying taxes and people who don’t want their photos taken. It says a lot about her that she’s going to these places, oftentimes with the children [in her care as a nanny].
CS: I think you do learn a lot about Vivian from her photographs. Probably the most important thing you learn about her is that she was a brilliant artist. And you see what kind of artist she was: she was compassionate, she was sensitive to human frailties and the tragedies in life, but she was also really funny. She had a great sense of humor. The color photo of a group of people crossing the street all wearing the same shade of yellow gets a huge laugh every time it comes up on screen. And that’s because Vivian had a sense for that. So yes, you can learn a lot about Vivian through her pictures, but of course we also know that she was private and that she kept this part of herself—the true part of her, the artist—from people who did know her. And those people knew her only as a nanny, which was really her cover, not her true identity.
DT: Have you discovered anything new about her since completing the film?
JM: No. We found ninety people and interviewed half of them, and maybe a dozen or so ended up in the film. So we found just about everybody we could possibly work with. We just finished editing last September, and there have been no breakthroughs or anything since then. We don’t think there will be, either. There may be little things that might come out that are so mundane we didn’t feel we needed to go that far.
DT: There was a real hint of some underlying horror.
JM: Possibly. I think that went to the grave with her, though.
DT: Everyone thought that she didn’t want to show her work, but then you discovered her correspondence with a printer in France hinting that she might have wanted to after all. Did anything happen with that?
JM: We don’t think anything happened with it. We know that this person printed her postcards before, though, because I have them. They’re French landscapes, they’re of the era, and they’re not printed by her. So we don’t know if this letter we found was ever completed or if it’s just a draft, or if it just didn’t work out.
Charlie says it was probably doomed from the get-go, because how are you going to send your negatives all the way across the globe to this little village in France, spend the money for postage and everything, and then have them all shipped back with the prints? It’s just wasn’t something that was practical, and it probably wouldn’t work in the long term.
CS: That might have been an expression of intent or desire on Vivian’s part, but as a practical matter, it was just a very bad plan. Maybe a self-defeating idea. But for us it pokes a hole in this very romantic idea that Vivian was an artist creating art for art’s sake, as if she set out from the very beginning to be this mystery woman (as she does describe herself) who would labor for decades creating a huge body of work only for herself, that should never be seen, never be tainted by public consumption. That romantic idea is ultimately less interesting than the truth—which for us is more compelling—that Vivian wasn’t able to share her work for a variety of reasons and because life is messy and complicated. She was probably partly intimidated by the idea of sharing her work for the same reason any artist is. They don’t want to be rejected. They don’t want criticism. The cost and labor involved in processing her work would have been significant. The biggest factor was probably time. Over time she got used to saying, “Well, maybe someday I’ll get around to printing this.” Or “Eventually this will happen, but for now I’ll just continue to take photos.” Years turn into decades and then eventually she has this enormous body of work which she tragically didn’t get to share during her life: tragic not because of the fame—who knows how Vivian would have reacted to that, being as private she was—but just to know that other people have been moved by what she saw through the lens and have come to appreciate her work and that she did find an audience. She didn’t get to experience that during her lifetime, but thanks to John’s discovery, it has happened now and sort of closes the circle.
DT: Were you surprised that none of the museums you approached were willing to take posthumous work, even as good as this?
JM: I was interested in museums mainly because I needed help financially. I also needed expertise, people to put in hours to scan and help me figure out the right way of archiving. I had no idea what I was doing and I couldn’t afford to do any of it. I contacted Tate Modern, MoMA, ICP, Eastman House, Center for Creative Photography in Arizona. None of them were perceptive about acquiring the work. Nobody said, This is a huge discovery, we need to make sure that you get the resources to do what you need to do, or we need to help you, or acquire it, or whatever. None of that happened.
DT: Did they feel there was a lack of quality in the work?
JM: There was a big question mark on the remainder of the work that’s not online. There are two hundred images online, but there are a hundred thousand negatives, right? So what are the rest of those like ? Also, most museums won’t interpret the artist’s work after they’re dead. Garry Winogrand is another example. The Center for Creative Photography in Arizona had his rolls, they developed those rolls, and they had a huge show in San Francisco, even though he’s not alive to edit those rolls. But they have a lot of his printed work, his contact sheets, which he’s circled for the images he liked. And his style is already established. He has a specific, distinct style, so it might have been easier for them to make that leap. People are alive who worked with him, photographed with him, maybe even studied with him and printed with him.
DT: Vivian Maier took an eight-month trip abroad in 1959. Do the image she shot on that trip reveal a different side of her? Was she different when she was abroad?
JM: She was an explorer. She went to the most obscure places that a tourist just doesn’t go, like Churchill, Manitoba, where she stayed with Native Americans on their reservation. From what we were told by someone who saw these images, this was a period when this tribe was in the deepest state of poverty in their whole history. You can see that they’re not well off; the children are really dirty. Then she’s on an island off of India. What is she doing there? How did she find these places to go to, and why is she going off to all these places by herself? It’s interesting, but her content was roughly the same. Her travel stuff is more documentary and less a New York or Chicago school of thought regarding street photography.
DT: She also used to make sound recordings, which revealed another side of her. For instance, she took a cassette recorder to a supermarket and interviewed people about Nixon’s impeachment. What was that about?
CS: Vivian was a self-made and self-appointed journalist. She would show up at red carpet events and movie premieres and join press reporters and photographers on the press scrum, reporting for Vivian Maier, basically. She would make audio recordings on subjects that interested her. If she found out that someone had met a celebrity, she would doorstep that person and show up at their suburban home and say, “Hey, I heard you met Rudolph Valentino. Is he as good-looking as they say, cause I never found him that attractive,” or whatever her opinion was on the subject. And she would basically make these little radio documentaries. In our movie, we included a film where Vivian is telling the story of a babysitter who was murdered. Vivian basically walks in her footsteps, from the place where the babysitter found the ad looking for the babysitting position, to the funeral home and the wake.
DT: Let’s talk about those hundred thousand negatives. Where does that figure come from?
JM: A really good estimate of material that’s in my possession. She shot two different styles of format—35mm and 120. With the 120 film, there’s 12 shots on a roll. We take the whole roll and make a contact sheet. We haven’t counted every single contact sheet, because there’s a lot of 35mm, which has 36 exposures, but to get a good estimate, you say 12 times how many contact sheets we have. There are also six to seven hundred rolls of undeveloped color film, and they’re 36 rolls a shot. It’s a lot.
DT: Are you going to develop those?
JM: Eventually. We don’t have the money yet.
DT: Where are you hoping to go from here?
JM: We’re just hoping that we get to show the film to as many people as possible.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014