The documentary Finding Vivian Maier is less about the discovery of photography of the reclusive Vivian Maier than it is about John Maloof, the man who discovered her and co-directed the film. Maier was a nanny who constantly took photos, but never shared them with others. After buying a box of undeveloped photographs at an auction, Maloof began to develop and distribute these photos online. The quality of Maier’s work was clear almost immediately, and she quickly gained a following. As knowledge of her and her work spread, Maloof began to search for who Maier was. In the way the real world is often like fiction, Maloof learns that Maier died shortly before he seriously began his search for her. He finds out she was a nanny, and the documentary is primarily a series of talking heads of her former charges.
Her charges and former employers portray her as an odd woman, deeply secretive, creating false identities, and a compulsive hoarder who was always taking photos. Those who knew her also express concern over Maloof’s project – she would have wanted him to mind his own business, one aptly says. Maloof, however, cannot understand why someone would take so many photographs, and of such high quality, if she did not want them shown. Rather than determining what Maier would have wanted, Maloof bumbles along in his exploitation, making the work of Vivan Maier about his discovery rather than the photographer.
Maloof is able to pursue his desires because all that remains of Maier is her work; the photographs, the items she hoarded and the memories of the children she cared for. Rather than grapple with the desires of an unorthodox dead woman, Maloof is able to present himself as her savior, revealing to the world the talents of this woman who wanted nothing to do with anyone else. Maloof does not understand her hoarding, the relationship she had with the people around her, or that a nanny would be able to produce photographs of such quality. He most certainly does not understand that one could take a photograph and not want others to see it.
Maloof’s main claim to validate his project of printing and distribution Maier’s photographs, conveniently not sharing what he does with the proceeds, stems from a letter she wrote to a French printer. In their correspondence, Maier expressed interest in showing her photographs. This is all the evidence Maloof needs to believe he is doing what Maier intended. A considerable stretch considering this letter was never followed up and only happened once.
Maloof’s assumption is inherently capitalist – he cannot understand why Maier would leave them undeveloped, and therefore be unable to make any money from it. If a photograph is good, Maier must have wanted people to see it. But one’s private world can be filled with skill and artistry. And this skill and artistry does not mean that it must be seen by others. Maloof is dismissive of her work as a nanny, of the small life she lives; he is only interested in her photographs and what they can amass. Maier’s world was complex and filled to the brim with everything she came in contact with. Maloof cannot understand that one would take photographs simply for oneself, that they exist for reasons other than reproduction and consumption, nor can he accept that his need to share Maier’s work do not align with Maier’s desires.
There is a lot of speculation around Maier’s hoarding impulses as well as an earlier abuse (which lately has become the catch-all reason for any and all behaviour that violates a norm, which is deeply offensive to survivors of sexual abuse). I find it striking that no one made the connection between Maier’s photography and her hoarding. She kept everything – bus tickets, mail, stuff from the garbage – and at the same time denied those around her any information about herself. This is a woman who would not even tell people her real name, so why would she want her work to be shown? A desire to document one’s experiences compulsively aligns so closely with the rest of her hoarding activities. This is a woman whose self-documentation extended to every item she came into contact with. She was creating her own story, and these photographs are an inherent part of it. Photography was an extension of her hoarding, a medium perfectly suited to it. The obsessive documentation and the hoarding are too closely linked to be dismissed.
Maier had a profound desire for privacy, but most of her street photography was taken without the subject’s awareness. What she did to strangers is what she feared the most from others. She was doing something clandestine, and if these photographs were distributed, she would be caught. This documentary is a cruel irony and, in some ways, is her punishment for her unconsented documentation of others. If alive, she would never have allowed this to happen. But only because she is dead and has no heirs that Maloof is able to pick through her life and show the world what she had kept hidden for so long. Maloof is able to have her as his subject, and use his work to his own advantage, because she has no means of protesting. He skirts over questions that this film is a fundamental violation of what Maier wanted, and continues on his quest to share Vivian Maier. Maier understood that what she was doing was wrong, both in her moral order and the rest of the world, and the kind of violation that was involved in it. But she never looked away, and continued to document others, a phantom photographer who reveled in the taking of the photograph rather than the showing. What Maloof has done is not dissimilar to Maier’s project. But Maier’s photos were for her, and her alone. And she was certainly not using other people against their wishes to make money.
As a woman who wanted no one to know her history, who lied about her nationality and rarely provided her actual name, it is not much of a reach to assume that she would not want her photographic activities to be noticed. She was the external watcher to the world, whether it be the families she nannied for or the poverty she documented. A lot of the world repulsed her, and she did what she could to remain outside of it, despite always watching. This is a woman who would not want the world to know she is looking at it. Yes, she took photos, and always carried a camera around her neck. But if we can only glance at the acts of taking, a discrete push of a button, Maier can remain hidden. If we see the results of her actions, we see her. This is a woman who had a remarkable eye for the world, and did everything she could to avoid the eyes of everyone else.
Maier’s work, and subsequently, her, should be understood in its undeveloped state. Maloof has Maier’s work, and uses it to eclipse whatever desire the actual author would have wanted. The author behind Vivian Maier is no longer Maier, but the John Maloof industry. What Maier would have wanted, it appears, is something beyond Maloof’s capabilities, for though he found her, he does little to understand her.