Maier worked as a nanny, mostly in Chicago, from the 1950s to the 1990s. During that time, she shot an estimated 150,000 photos - a staggering number. She was only discovered as a fluke by the film’s producer and narrator. Maier was never interviewed for the movie as she died in 2009 before work on the film started.
The fundamental mystery is how this woman who fled any type of intimacy with anyone - family, those for whom she worked, friends - was able to connect with people on the streets she photographed. In books and the unfortunate very small photo selection on the DVD, you see how she could elicit the most remarkable expressions and humanity in her subjects. At the same time, her photos have a breathtaking composition and capture moments in remarkable ways. Clearly an exceptional talent but also a compulsion to take that many photographs.
I would have preferred seeing more of her work and her progression over the years. The best we get is examples throughout the film with minimal or no reference to when the photo was taken. Some of the photos are of children she nannied. Now adults, they are the main subject of the interviews in the movie and have the most insightful stories. Frequently, they were marched around town, including downtrodden sections, so that she could take photos.
Even with these interviews, we never completely grasp the connection between the artist and her work. While difficult in the case of most artists, perhaps this is one of the more extreme and enigmatic cases. Nevertheless, we don’t need to know the interior life, motivations and reasons of an artist to appreciate her work. So why bother trying so hard as this movie does? Make the connection if you can, but look at the work, analyze it, see how it evolves and ultimately admire it and appreciate it.
Finding Vivian Maier shows us a talented, mysterious person. We won’t be able to understand her. We can understand her art, something this documentary should have made a better effort to do.