“Finding Vivian Maier” is a portrait of the artist who lived in secrecy. The self-sworn mystery woman who worked as a nanny in Chicago from family to family, without ever really having one of her own, took over 100,000 photographs that co-director and collector John Maloof unearthed at a junk auction in 2007.
A few years later, Maloof had mounted the first show of her work, an elegiac collection of B&W street photography, self-portraits and images of everyday people caught unaware. At that point, he met the film’s eventual co-director Charlie Siskel (yes, he’s the nephew of Gene), a friend of producer Jeff Garlin and a former protégé of Michael Moore.
Together, Maloof and Siskel leapt into the “rabbit hole,” as Siskel calls it, of Vivian Maier to co-create a beautiful documentary about the unknowable interiors of The Artist that is now a Best Documentary Oscar nominee.
Charlie Siskel and I spoke on the phone, below.
How did you meet John Maloof?
I was introduced to John after he had mounted the first show of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a local Chicago story and it went on to become something much bigger. I’m from Chicago, so I was aware of the story but I didn’t get involved in the documentary until later. John had started to film some of the events and he made contact with a handful of the families that we ended up including in the film. I was contacted by Jeff Garlin and indirectly through Michael Moore… Lucky for me. John and I spoke on the phone and it was that very first phone call where I learned that not only did John have over 100,000 images but hours and hours of Super-8 footage and hours of audio recordings that Vivian made. He was also inundated with all of her personal effects that he had access to, notes and receipts and binders filled with news clippings that she kept and all sorts of collectibles and trinkets and political buttons, and so I was hooked. I went down the rabbit hole immediately and spent the next three-plus years there.
What drew you into this mystery?
It’s an incredible story of an undiscovered artist, someone who led a double life, the mystery of how someone was able to do the work of a brilliant artist and yet remain undiscovered during their lifetime. The hows and whys of that were fascinating to me. I was intrigued by the prospect of trying to piece together a portrait of this great artist, this person who led a double life through the people who knew her, not as an artist because we of course couldn’t find anyone that knew her as an artist, none of those people existed. We were left with people who knew her just as the nanny, and that was a world that was very familiar to me.
We now know Vivian Maier the artist. Who was she as a person?
I grew up in Highland Park where Vivian was a nanny, as it happens, just blocks from my childhood home. Even though I didn’t grow up with nannies myself, that was a world that was very familiar to me. I started to imagine that Vivian must have felt very much out-of-place in that world, and that all these people who were speaking about vivian and on her behalf maybe were getting her wrong. Maybe this portrait we were having to construct of Vivian was in some ways a very flawed one, or was limited by their perspective. They saw Vivian as the nanny. They didn’t see her as a brilliant artist. She didn’t share that side of herself with them and I don’t think they ask. They saw the camera around her neck and they didn’t ask. She didn’t offer. How much do any of us share with our bosses about our childhood or are past or about our secret aspirations as artists, our biggest hopes and dreams?
How was she able to be so prolific?
She was a brilliant artist who was masquerading as a nanny, using her job as a camouflage, a means to an end to get out in the world and take her photographs and she did it very effectively for five decades, with half a century of photographs averaging, at times, a roll a day. She never wavered in her pursuit of her craft as a photographer. she never let the fact that her work wasn’t seen, wasn’t recognized, didn’t receive any acclaim, wasn’t supported by any benefactor or any gallery. She never let that stop her from doing the work. That’s ultimately what artists do.
What surprised you about her story?
The idea of creating a portrait of an artist through people who didn’t know her and didn’t understand her seemed like an interesting way of telling Vivian’s story because you do get a sense that she had a very lonely life in some ways, to be so fundamentally misunderstood by the people who surround you. she went from family to family and i think it’s particularly poignant in her case because from what we have been able to learn it seems that her own childhood was not a happy one, there seems to have been some sort of family rift that drove the family apart and was at least a fractured or broken childhood and she never really had a true love that we know of, so here she is living in close proximity to families but never really experienced that part of family life herself from what we’ve been able to tell, and certainly didn’t during her adult life so in that way her choice of vocation seems particularly ironic.
Vivian had a dark side. She could be an abusive nanny. But that was de rigueur for her era.
We learned that Vivian was not a saint. Few of us are, and so in some ways it wasn’t entirely surprising, also given the time in which she was working as a nanny. These were the days where corporal punishment was accepted in schools. This is where I grew up. At my elementary school, which is the one some of these kids went to, we had teachers who would use corporal punishment in the classroom. It wasn’t something that parents got up in arms about either. Standards have changed and evolved. Not that that doesn’t excuse Vivian’s behavior. It just says that it was not entirely out of step with the accepted norms of the day.
Did you believe everything people were telling you?
We learned some darker stories about her treatment of some of the kids. These are memories as told by adutls now reflecting back on childhood episodes. Memory is a tricky thing. Small episodes can become exaggerated. We made a conscious choice to present the stories in a way where the viewer has to decide. Lots of people contradict each other in the film. There are people saying she had a fake accent, and some say she had a real accent. Some say she posed people in the photographs she took, while other say she never posed them. The two people that contradict each other about that are two of the people who tell each other stories about this more abusive conduct. It’s a very direct invitation to the audience to judge for themselves what you make of the stories in the film.
Did you omit any details or episodes on purpose?
Obviously if we felt that something was untrue, if we had reason to believe stories we were told were untrue, we would not have included them in the film. But of course we don’t have 100-percent certainty; we’re stuck with something in the middle and because there were stories about other episodes where Vivian would lock a kid in the basement, or Vivian ditching the kids and the police finding the kids and the police saying to them, “You can’t leave your babysitter” and the kids saying “She left us.” Because of these kinds of stories we felt that there was at least enough there to suggest there was some truth in what was being said.
Did learning about her abusive behavior shatter your illusions in any way?
That was difficult to learn about as subject that we had grown and continue to grow very attached to. To me it just means that Vivian was human, that she is flawed as we all are, that Vivian was maybe not the greatest nanny in the world but was clearly a brilliant artist. All the people that we talked to continue to feel that Vivian had an impact on their lives and showed them a side of life that they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to and they were better off for that. They all recall her, even those who experienced these darker episodes, and their experiences with a real fondness and I think they feel like their lives are better for having had Vivian in them.
Do you have a favorite photo of hers?
Ultimately the self-portraits are the most intriguing and revealing in terms of Vivian’s story. For me, they represent the answer to the riddle, if there’s a riddle at the heart of this film and at the heart of Vivian’s story. When you look at those self-portraits, they tell you how Vivian saw herself literally and metaphorically. They are the portraits of an artist, and they’re the self-portraits of an artist. When you think about other self-portraits, you think of Rembrandt or Van Gogh and I think, not to compare Vivian to those great masters although she may well be one of the great masters of photography, the comparison is to say that Vivian saw herself as an artist first and foremost and through and through. That starts to make sense of the real mystery and the puzzle that we grappled with in the film.
Why do you think Vivian did not share her work in her lifetime?
Well, what do other artists do? Maybe it’s more of the rule rather than the exception that artists don’t end up sharing their work. Maybe most artists never get to share their work. Maybe most art is lost for that reason rather than found, as Vivian’s was in this case. Maybe Vivian is an exception in that sense. Not only is she an exceptional artist but she’s exceptional in that her work was discovered. Maybe most of the great works of art are never discovered.
Why do most artists not share their work? It’s intimidating. You risk rejection. In the case of photography, it’s very expensive and time consuming to print and share and display your work. Vivian was working as a nanny, not making a lot of money, and what money she has she put into film. She’s living this itinerant life, moving from house to house. Logistically it would have been difficult for her to make prints. Maybe these are the reasons but what’s heroic is that she never stopped doing the work, taking pictures, housing them meticulously, preserving them at incredible cost, having to move all of these dozens of boxes everywhere she goes but preserving them so that they might someday be seen.
The film suggests that maybe she wanted to share her work, but couldn’t for these reasons.
Vivian was a nanny and Kafka was an accountant. Most artists don’t get to achieve professional status. Many artists are discovered posthumously. Vivian is not the first and it is in a sense tragic that Vivian never experienced this recognition in her lifetime because I do think she would be gratified knowing that her work is being seen and appreciated by millions. What could be more satisfying than to know that the way you saw the world is inspiring other people and is having the power that her work is having?
Ultimately her story is not a tragic one because her work was discovered and has been shared, and is inspiring people around the world. The redemption in the end for Vivian has come through her work being shared with millions of people and women and artists are inspired by her example because she faced enormous obstacles but she never let them deter her.
We’re left with this historical treasure, a time capsule of the mid-century up to 2000s and not just a historical record but that historical record rendered by a brilliant, singular artist who is now going to be remembered in the history books.