The Riddles We Leave Behind: Finding Vivian Maier

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By Raychel Lean, Miami Future Cinema Critic

Imagine you dropped dead right now. A slightly morbid thought, I’m aware, but just humor me for a second. All right, so you’re dead. Your life, up to the moment you began reading this paragraph, is a finished project. There’s nothing more you can add, not a single detail you can scribble in or erase, because time’s up – sorry. Pencils down, stop writing, and face the front. Even if you were mid-sentence, whatever you created within your allotted time will simply have to suffice. What have you left behind?
Aside from wondering how your loved ones may react, maybe you’re also quietly hyperventilating at the thought of someone going through your private things, or reading that diary you’ve been keeping under your bed. Man, you’d die if anyone ever saw that. Oh, wait…
Vivian Maier/John Maloof Collection
Vivian Maier’s collection belonged to just that group of paraphernalia. In Finding Vivian Maier, director John Maloof intricately documents the story of a woman no longer among us, who gave little away yet left so much behind. Wearing her camera as a necklace, she sauntered through life collecting moments in photograph form. But God forbid anyone ever laid eyes on what she created. Her every effort was kept behind lock and key, guarded by a peculiar “mean streak.” Posthumous, however, all bets came off. Like a magpie after metal, Maloof identified gold in a box of film. With one unwitting gamble of $380 at an auction, he unearthed and exposed a trail leading to 150,000 negatives. Now Maier’s secrets are out of the darkroom, developed for all to see.
Under the cover of a modest nanny, Maier practiced street photography in public places around the world. Finding Vivian Maier sprinkles shots of her work between interviews with people who knew her, even lived with her, and yet had no knowledge of her talent. Maloof stares boldly into any murky corner of her life with intent to shed light on it, following every lead in an attempt to acquire answers. Bouncing off information from each interview, his curiosity takes him as far as France to deliver an un-mailed letter. Although burning questions about her background remain alight, Maloof’s sense of whimsical urgency in finishing what Maier began translates into a film which both honors and betrays the self-proclaimed “mystery woman.”
Vivian Maier/John Maloof Collection
In a single frame, Maier manages to capture scenes of disgust amongst beauty, strength in weakness, and grace within tragedy, in ways that can dilate even the most uncultured eye. (And there’s even a few “selfies” in the mix.) Maier’s story, like her images, resonates long after the screening as it becomes evident that what Maloof has to tell us is bigger than just one film. The more answers he provides, the more questions are born. In casting light on the fascinating and, often, contradictory hues of a single woman, one is led to wonder about the point of self-expression. If creativity isn’t shared with others, then what is it? Art is an expression of personality, but it seems Vivian had so much to say that it overshadowed her courage to speak.
Vivian Maier/John Maloof Collection
Paradoxically comfortable and uncomfortable around people, Maier had the courage to explore a city while personally quarantined from it, as though she could never organically capture humanity while a part of it. In Finding Vivian Maier, Maloof remains as informative as one can be without knowing the entire story, allowing Maier a belated expression of who she was, and what she saw in the world. His mission continues to be providing the outlet of exhibition that Maier may or may not have been waiting for in her lifetime, as he nudges towards bringing her recognition in the art world. In the Q&A after the screening, he referred to his now emotional connection to her and her work as coincidence, “It was just the right things coming into line at the right time.”
Ultimately, this contemplative review of the life and work of a closeted lady begs the question: what riddles will we leave behind? And who might be there to figure them out?


Jaie Laplante

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