Talking Pictures

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Finding Vivian Maier, USA 2014

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2014

finding vivian maier poster

This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a programme titled The Female Gaze. The screening accompanied an exhibition of the work of female photographers at the Village Bookstore and Gallery, ending with a Round Table Discussion, including ‘the effectiveness of the ‘female only’ curatorial approach. The screening at the Hyde Park was introduced by Helen Grant from the College of Art & Design: briefly as there was a large audience turnout and we started a little late. There was also a post-screen discussion, again unfortunately cut short by limitations of time.

Vivian Maier was a New Yorker, of French parentage, born 1926 and died 2009. She worked most of her adult life as Nanny with various families in New York and Chicago. However, she has achieved posthumous fame because of the quality of her photographic work, unknown and little seen in her lifetime. Essentially her work falls into ‘street photography’. It is now exhibited in prestige galleries, sells as relatively expensive artwork and is compared to the work of major male and female professional photographers.

Finding Vivian Maier is written and directed by John Maloof with Charlie Siskel. Maloof also narrates the film. In 2007 Maloof, a regular at auction houses and car boot sales, bought a box of negative film for $380. Maier was still alive at this point, but possibly unaware of the sale. The items were auctioned off to cover unpaid storage costs. Maloof’s trove included thousands of photographic negatives, undeveloped rolls of black and white and colour film, and Super 8 mm and 16mm films. In the course of the film we learn that for much of her work Maier’s favoured camera was a Rolleiflex. Some of her work was developed and printed and this seems to be true of most of the 8mm and 16mm film. She does not seem to have worked at processing and developing: though one throwaway line notes that she was not good at ‘printing up photographs’.

The structure of the film is important. It opens with a series of excerpts from interviews with the families for whom Maier worked as a Nanny. It reminded me faintly of the use of interviewees in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981): that is another film where a conventional treatment dilutes the substance of the portrait.  Maloof then recounts how he started working through his archive and researching Maier. When he commenced posting some of her photographs on the Internet he realised that her work was both of professional standard and deemed to be of quality and value. This led to exhibitions of her work in galleries and the film includes brief comments on and comparisons of the quality of Maier’s photographs.

The middle section of the film is essentially an investigation of Maier’s personal life. The combination of employment as a children’s Nanny whilst producing work that is valued as art is intriguing. Moreover, Maier was an extremely private person, even secretive. This comes out in comments by the families and from Maloof’s researches. She sometimes changed the spelling of her name – Meyer rather than Maier. She would use the pseudonym Smith quite frequently. And her personal space in the homes of the families where she worked was inviolate for her. She was also an assiduous collector, of artefacts and newspapers. In some of her moves from one employment to another she took several trunks, and numerous cases and boxes. Maloof’s trove was enlarged when one family allowed him to pick through another storage facility of items left by Maier.

As the portrait develops the film emphasises the sense of Maier as a distinctive and unusual character – the work ‘eccentric’ pops up several times, and later in the film ‘crazy’. The emphasis is on the unravelling of the ‘mystery’ of Vivian Maier. This the film fails to do, but at one point interviewees speculate that there may have been abuse, either when she was a child or an adult. The reminiscences of her performance as a carer of children are actually varied, at times almost contradictory.

We do learn about several trips that she made in the 1950s and 1960s. There were at least two visits to her ancestral village in the Champsaur Valley in the French Alps. There are photographs both of family members and of the village and its surround. This is the only occasion of which there is a record of Maier photographic work be printed and displayed. In fact she arranged for some of the photographs to be printed up as post cards and entertained the idea of some of sort of commercial activity. The other trip was a world tour in which she visited Latin America, Europe and Asia. But we did not learn much about this.

Towards the end the film returns to the issue of the status of Maier’s photographic work. She has enjoyed major and popular exhibitions in a number of cities in the USA and Europe. Her prints are now collected, selling [we are told] for about $12,000. However, it is suggested that the major art institutions are still resisting including her in the canon of photographic work.


Following the film there was a short postscript, with some comments from Helen Clark and responses from the audience. I have to say that some of the contributions got rather lost in the auditorium and I was not always completely clear about the point being made.

Helen Clark returned to a question she posed before the screening, ‘who was finding Vivian Maier’? Her comments on the film pointed up that what we were presented with was John Maloof’s search: it was his story rather than Vivian’s. She added that she had two particular worries regarding the film that disturbed her. One was the financial. Maloof was now selling Vivian’s photograph, effectively making money out of her work. This was work for which she was never paid, and in fact she was still alive when Maloof began his enterprise, though he was unaware of that.

Her second concern was the sequences where respondents in the film suggested the possibility of Vivian being abused, presumably sexually, at some time in her life. The BBFC certified the film as 12A with the note ‘infrequent child abuse references‘. As Helen pointed out these comments were all speculation, there being no evidence. In fact in the film it provides a possible explanation for her behaviour which is seen as somewhat abnormal. Helen’s final point was on the way that the film represents Vivian and her work. She felt that this personalised her work in a way that was not the norm for studies of artists, and that this was to some degree explained by Vivian being an unmarried woman.

At this point we started to get people from the audience pitching in. Several disagreed with the points about Maloof’s exploitation of the archive, proposing that he bought it and he researched it and so the entitlement followed. Someone also commented how the film dramatised the ‘dream’ of people who frequent car boots sales, uncovering a treasure trove. I think there were also some disagreements with Helen’s comment on the representation of ‘an unmarried woman, though I did not catch all of this. Given the short space of time available I did not get a sense of how the audience overall responded to the argument. I suspect we heard from more vocal members, [I confess I chipped in]. But there was certainly a section that accepted the way that the film presented its subject.

I think there are serious problems with the presentation in the film. The structure that I described above certainly provides a dominating focus on Vivian Maier in terms of personality and as something of an ‘oddball’. In fact, the factors which have propelled her into the limelight, that have made her photographs valuable artefacts, and which enabled the funding of the film are all to do with her status as a photographer and artist. But the film spends relatively little time on the aesthetics of her photographic work. There are some brief comments at the beginning and again towards the end of the film, but these are outweighed by people’s memories of her person.

The film is weak not only on the aesthetics of her work but on the technicalities. The only cameras that are specifically mentioned are the Rolleiflex and a Kodak Brownie that belonged to her mother. But I reckoned those there ware three or four different cameras that she was using over her career. There was also very little about the production side of photography. There was the one comment regarding her weakness in printing. The sense is that she did not work at the developing side of photography: which given her low income throughout her life probably explained the unprocessed negatives and undeveloped film.

The film gives only a limited sense of Maier’s work. She clearly had a gift for composition and for catching the moment. There are photographs of the families for whom she worked and of the village from which her family hailed. But the bulk of her work is what is called street photography. She tended to take pictures in working class and deprived areas. The dominant feature of her work is people, but often with an equally strong sense of their environment. She is interested in the ordinary, the everyday, the dispossessed and those who are to degree outsiders.

One senses a strong feel of empathy for her subjects; there is no sense of condescension. At the same time there is also a strong sense of reflexivity. She is very fond of shots reflecting windows and mirrors, producing classic artist’s self-portraits. The photographs are also historical records and cultural artefacts. When positioned alongside her collection of cultural objects and newspaper stories she emerges as a chronicler of the times and of the urban spaces. The films we saw did not have the same qualities. They seem much more like home movies. Maier’s forte seems to have been in ‘capturing the moment’.

1953, New York, NY

It is worth adding that she was not only an unmarred woman but also economically working class – ‘in service’. There is a strong affinity between the content of her major photographic work and her class position. That can also be seen as a factor that has led to the film and certain institutions treating her as an exception rather than as a member a member of an artistic pantheon.

With praiseworthy consideration the BBC took the opportunity to re-screen on the same evening another film on this topic – Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? transmitted in the BBC 1 Imagine series. This provides a welcome alternative treatment of the photographer. The emphasis is very much on her work and its aesthetic and social qualities. Partly because of what material the film could access the focus is on her activity in New York and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. John Maloof declined to participate, as he was already involved in his own film. The BBC film uses other collections of her work. There are some familiar faces from the Maloof film, but also some new ones. The treatment of the bidding and buying up of Maier collections suggests a world of cut-throat competition with a whiff of the unseemly. It is worth noting that the prices paid at the auctions were probably a lot less than the thousands of dollars that Maier had probably spent over the years on storage.

The BBC film does provide a biography, but again of a different tyre and tone. The key researcher is photography lecturer, Pamela Bannof, who has carefully researched Maier and her life. It seems that Maier’s family lived on the margins like many of her subjects. Both her mother and grandmother were in service. Her photographic career seems to have taken off when she made her first visit to the Champsaur valley: she had lived there for a few years as a child and she had some sort of fluency in French. Later when she return to New York she started serious photographic activity – early shots are cityscapes but then she homes in are what became the major theme of her work – the urban environs and people on the margins.

The film fills out some of her personal and work life. And a rather different portrait emerges. The different language used offers a sense of this – ‘recluse’, ‘very private’, and ‘rootless’. There is her work as a Nanny in New York and later in Chicago; some families called her ‘Mary Poppins with a camera’.

Bannof and other photographers comment on examples of her work. There is a greater variety than in the Maloof film. Apart from the street photography and the self-portraits there are pictures that experiment and play with pattern and form. At times there are touches with a surreal quality. We saw some brief examples of her 8mm work, which here has more social content than the examples used by Maloof. And the children in her care also turn up as subjects. She has a fine sense of portraiture, but nearly always secured in an environment that adds to the character. The use of objects and pattern is noticeable in both her self-portraits and portraits taken on the streets.

We get some technical explanations on her photographic work, including of her favourite Rolleiflex camera: one that only used 12 exposure rolls. There is an example in a gallery of a whole roll of picture, as taken in sequence. One gets a sense of how she moved from work to leisure and from the suburbs to the city downtown. It seems that she did do some processing herself, but she had to do it in her room at her workplace. It is possible that the restrictions of this and her low income preventing her developing this side of her work. We hear from a staff member at one of the camera shops that she frequented for processing. Also from a manager at a Chicago cinema where she went ‘three of four times a month’ to watch movies.

Bannof argues that whilst Maier was self-taught as a photographer she consciously studied and developed her art. There is a short from 1952 of Salvador Dali outside MOMA: at the same time as an exhibition of ‘Five French Photographers’. Presumably Maier visited this: and it seems she visited Paris and the Louvre when she made her second visit to her home village.  We also get to see more of the photographs Maier took on her year-long trip, including India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. As Bannof comments, this is an epic piece of travelling for a single woman in the 1950s.


Other snippets emerge. One of the adults once in her care recognises a picture that she took – of Maier. Presumably questions of provenance may begin to haunt collectors and archivists. At one point we are told that Maier prints fetch about $2,000: whilst original prints from her hand fetch about $8,000. Still a tidy sum.

The film also gives a sense of the changing nature of her photographic work. One comment is that as the 1960s pass there is a growing amount if urban detritus in the pictures, less of the earlier alternative patterns. This, it is suggested, reflects the changing and deteriorating conditions of her personal life: her later employment as a Nanny was in shorter term posts: finally she was a carer for an old, disabled person. It also may reflect the social crises of the 1960s; she apparently went downtime during the Chicago riots. These changes may well relate to her apparent loss of interest in actually displaying or marketing her work.

The Round-Table Discussion at the Village Gallery offered four female speakers, an exhibition of contemporary female photographers and a discussion. The audience was overwhelmingly female and I think was also totally white. The four speakers discussed the discourse of female photography from the angles of work, exhibition and curating. Helen Clark added some comments on ‘feminist theory’ and women in visual media. Overall it was more general that just the specific films on Vivian Maier. However, Pippa Oldfield from the Impressions Gallery noted other female photographers whose work only became public after their death. One example would be Lee Miller, some of whose work went unnoticed in her lifetime, and whose legacy has been established by her son. Questions and comments bought up some other issues. This included the recent phenomenon of the ‘selfie’: I was with Helen Clark that Maier’s self-portraits are much more in line with examples in classical art than the new Internet-style pics.

In terms of the overall programme it is worth considering again the key concept, ‘The female gaze’. Helen Clark has provided some comments on a flier and on a Website. She refers to discussions around ‘the Gaze’ and specifically mentions Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). Mulvey’s article basically employs a psychoanalytical argument, “demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Mulvey sees women as ‘caught within the language of patriarchy’, effectively complicit in the treatment of female characters on screen. Mulvey’s treatment is rather different from another writer referred to, John Berger. However, Berger offers a materialist analysis of representations, including those of women (Ways of Seeing, 1972 – as was pointed out in the discussion it predates Mulvey’s work). Art, including cinema and photography, tends to work within the limits of the dominant social mores. Thus part of women’s subordination in class society includes being the object of male action. Thus the tendency, not total, for female characters to be objectified in art and the media. I think that it is not necessary to go into the complicated and linguistically obscure arguments offered by Mulvey: Berger’s analysis shows us how representations express and re-inforce class and gender relations.

In that sense Finding Vivian Maier is ideological. That is, it gives expression to the dominant values, and even prejudices, of US capitalist society. These are values and prejudices regarding women, unmarried women, women employed as Nanny’s, and women whose behaviour is outside the accepted norms. But the film is ideological in another sense, that it fails to address the underlying social relations. Maier’s position in society is determined by her class and gender, and indeed by the cultural factors consequent on these. And her story of non-recognition followed by her growing star status refracts the relationships of intellectuals and artists to that society. Pierre Bourdieu’s offers ideas about the class-based competencies and dispositions that operate in cultural and artistic discourses (Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1986).

One comment in the BBC film saw Maier as possessing qualities that distinguish the amateur from the professional’: clearly a reference to competencies and dispositions. And Bannof suggested one could see the influence of profressional phtographers [Diane Arbus] in her early work.

Maier clearly failed to fit within such ‘competencies and dispositions’ in her lifetime, which makes her work subversive. Now, through the assistance of people who appear to be familiar with the said competencies and dispositions, her work has accessed the photographic discourse. There are innumerable instances of female and working class artists who have been censured by such discourses. Posthumously, and to a degree benefiting from modern media like the Internet, Maier has been elevated into the discourse.

At the same time there has been a limited change in the use value of her work. From being undisplayed photographs and unprocessed photographs they have become art objects with a particular cachet. Even more remarkable though is the change in their exchange value. Maloof bought the box of film for $380 dollars. We are told that one print sells for between $2,000 and $12,000. Even allowing for the process of bringing them to market this is a large surplus. Presumably in her lifetime Maier’s labour as a Nanny resulted in pay that was less than its actual value, though this has not been calculated. Since her death her unpaid labour has produced expropriation on a substantial degree. One of the contradictions of the system is that the collectors, who bought her work at auctions, likely unbeknown to her, acquired the copyright and therefore the increasing exchange value.

Appropriation runs right through this herstory. It applies to Maier’s work as a Nanny, to her activity as a photographer: not just economic appropriation but social and cultural. However, appropriation also applies to the profession of which Maier technically never became a part. From their earliest developments, both photography and cinema have appropriated the images of ordinary people. Street photography goes back to Victorian times. Both Edison and Lumière relied on filming their workers, their customers and the ordinary citizens for their products. But these ‘performances’ are not considered labour with exchange value in the way that the professional performances are. Peoples unfamiliar with these new technologies often expressed the fear at their first encounter that these machines would ‘steal their souls’. This is not just in a religion sense, but that it created alternatives forms of themselves. Photography’s apparent realism and cinematography’s addition of motion represented people in a way that was distinct from earlier art forms such as painting, sculpture and ceramics. Models for painters are as a norm paid: few subjects of photographic portraits receive payment, except in the fashion industry.

Maier’s failure or even unwillingness to display most of her work subverted this process. This does not seem to have been a wilful act on her part: she dabbled in attempts to deploy the work. But it did follow up from her working outside the artistic dispositions that dominated both mediums. Her photographs are fine example of the modern medium. But they, and the life story that now accompanies them, present intriguing critical questions about the medium itself.


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