Exposing Vivian Maier’s Secret Life and Private Passion

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Finding Vivian Maier co-director John Maloof at MIFF 2014 (Regal South Beach); film poster
Shot by shot the world is coming to know the elusive Vivian Maier (1926-2009), a career nanny who left behind a cache of 100,000 negatives of her captivating street photography—images that she zealously hid from the eyes of others. The spellbinding pictures have earned her posthumous recognition by The New York Times as “one of America’s most proficient and insightful street photographers.”

An American of French and Austro-Hungarian extraction, Maier bounced between Europe and the United States before returning, in 1951 on the steamship ‘De-Grass’ to New York City, where she nestled in with a Southampton family to begin her decades-long career as a nanny. In 1956, when Maier moved to Chicago, she enjoyed the luxury of a private bathroom which she used as a darkroom, allowing her to process prints and develop her own rolls of B&W film. As the children she cared for entered adulthood, she was forced to move from family to family, and her rolls of undeveloped, unprinted work began to accumulate.

Maloof Collection Ltd. photos: New York (undated); New York 1953; Character (undated)
Maloof Collection Ltd. photos: Striporama New York 1953; Vivian Maier self-portrait 1955; Chicago 1961
Maier’s photographs and belongings were eventually locked away in storage, until she was no longer able to afford the rent, and in 2007, the facility auctioned them off at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The immense archive would have likely vanished into obscurity were it not for the intervention of John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate amateur historian, who purchased a box of her unidentified negatives for $380, later purchasing more once he became consumed by what he discovered, thereby embarking on a crusade to put this prolific photographer in the history books.
Maloof’s newly found obsession led to the fascinating biopic, Finding Vivian Maier, which screened at Miami International Film Festival this past March in the Knight Documentary Competition, where it won the Grand Jury Prize (in a tie with The Overnighters, by Jesse Moss.) In the film, Maloof teams with co-director Charlie Siskel to uncover Maier’s private passion. Following clues, they trace Maier’s history through New York City, France, and Chicago, where her strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never-before-seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her. 
Maloof Collection Ltd. photos: Chicago 1960; Vivian Maier’s cameras; Vivan Maier’s private bathroom/darkroom in Chicago 1956
Maloof Collection Ltd. photos: Kirk Douglas at Spartacus movie premiere in Chicago1960; pre-PETA fashion; New York (undated)
The personal accounts from people who knew Maier echo one another; “She was eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride. With a camera around her neck whenever she left the house, she would obsessively take pictures, but never showed her photos to anyone. An unabashed and unapologetic original.”
Maier, dubbed Mary Poppins by some, recorded a mind-boggling collection of compelling scenes and peculiarities of Urban America in the second half of the twentieth century. Interesting bits of Americana, the demolition of historic landmarks for new development, the invisible lives of various groups of people and the destitute, the final go-around at the legendary stockyards (with kids in tow!), as well as some of Chicago’s most cherished sites were all meticulously catalogued by Maier.
Maloof Collection Ltd. photos: A child’s curiosity (undated); Canada 1950s; Christmas Eve in New York 1953
But as Maloof meets people who knew Vivian, new questions arise about her life and work. Would she have even wanted this attention? That we will never know. But it would be more tragic to not safeguard the physical legacy of her intense passion for the benefit of sharing it with future generations.  
Finding Vivian Maier will make its commercial debut in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood, O Cinema Miami Shores, and Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, May 9th.  [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][view trailer—Tatyana Chiocchetti


Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.