Anybody Can Play Guitar
In the long ago time, before the advent of the internet and the cult of oversharing, a lot of people wanted to do a lot of things that, perhaps, seemed like fanciful dreams. Someone looking to play an instrument, for example, had to either teach themselves via instructional material (found mostly in libraries and bookstores), or search out and pay for lessons. Today you can find all sorts of free material online, not to mention in-depth, paid video courses, either downloaded or physically purchased, that can cram years worth of material into a package that is cheaper than a years worth of lessons. These are fantastic developments for people who are determined to learn, and who have a real interest in whatever that process is.
The drawback to this, of course, is that the internet also makes it easier for virtually anyone to claim (and sometimes harbor extreme delusions) that they are something they are not. Go do a search on YouTube for singers and let me know how many bad ones you find. You can single space your report in size-8 font and it will still probably be at least one million pages long. It turns out leveling the playing field sometimes finds the needle in the proverbial haystack, but more often, it finds the gum on the bottom of talent’s shoe.
Vivian Maier, however, is the exact opposite of a non-talent begging for notoriety; a talent for the ages who was never known in her lifetime as anything but a nanny. The 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier (directed, written, and produced by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel) aims to change this.
In 2007 Maloof bought a portion of a storage locker that formerly belonged to Maier. The contents were mostly film negatives and some undeveloped film canisters. While going through the negatives, Maloof began to notice that the person that had taken these pictures had a lot of talent, and assumed he would be able to find some information about them. When internet searches for the photographer, whose name was Vivian Maier, came back fruitless, he decided to buy more of the collection housed in the storage unit.
In 2009, Maier died at age 83, and Maloof came across her obituary when doing a search. It was through this initial find that he was able to start slowly bringing the pieces of her life into view. Concurrently, Maier started receiving recognition, through the work of Maloof and others in the art world, as one of the most talented street photographers of the 20th century.
As the film progresses it is revealed that Maier wasn’t unaware of her talent, but her never showing it to many people seems to be more of an extension of her worldview. Maier was reclusive and didn’t make a lot of friends. Even to some of the people interviewed in the film, including family members and former employers, Maier seems to still remain a bit of an enigma. The film sheds as much light as it can on certain areas, but there is still a lot that remains unknown.
The biggest revelation of the film, however, are the photos themselves. They are very well-done and the subjects tend to be city-dwellers (mostly around Chicago where Maier lived for most of her life), who may or may not have been aware that their picture was being taken. Maier used a Rolleiflex camera, whose viewfinder was on the top of the camera as opposed to the side, and allowed her to snap photographs without the subject necessarily knowing it. This, along with a wonderful observational eye, make Maier’s photos stand out as unscripted and of the moment.
The documentary itself is well-done and a little more thorough in its investigation than I suspected it would be. Generally speaking, it’s harder to find material on an unknown subject than it is on someone well-known to the public, but Finding Vivian Maier proves that it isn’t impossible. This is also a film that could have easily turned into a movie about the filmmakers instead of the subject, but Maloof and Siskel do a good job of making sure that Maier stays front and center. This isn’t a vanity project to make them look good; it is a true testament to the work of a creative mind that could have easily been lost had it not been for a few individuals.
Finding Vivian Maier succeeds on every level, but it really succeeds in making the audience understand why Maier’s work is important. In a world of Instagramming meals and Facebook posts about your dog’s balls (that has to be a thing, right?), it is a service to the world when someone reminds us that true talent still exists, and in some cases, isn’t all that interested in having a show on Bravo. In the world before Photoshop, Vivian Maier was a photographer that didn’t require filters and fixes; here’s hoping there’s still a few out there like her, and that we don’t have to wait until they are dead to realize it.
Until next time…