Finding Vivian Maier is John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s fascinating documentary exploring the mysterious life of the secretive Chicago street photographer. This is my long interview with Siskel, timed for the film’s theatrical release. Originally published on the Empire website.
Unknown as an artist during her lifetime, Chicago nanny Vivian Maier took thousands of photographs during practically her every waking moment, revealing a preternatural and self-taught talent for capturing documentary images. John Maloof discovered her by chance when he bought a box of her undeveloped film at auction, beginning his own journey to bring her to posthumous public attention. The documentary Finding Vivian Maier, out this week, is part of a wider ongoing unveiling that also includes books and exhibitions. Maloof co-directed the film with Charlie Siskel, who spoke to Empire recently about the process of unravelling the Maier mystery. Unlike Maloof, Siskel chose not to also appear in front of the camera. “I prefer it that way,” he smiles.
How did you come to be co-directing with John Maloof?
I met John after he’d found the photographs and mounted the first show of them in Chicago, as we show in the film. There wasn’t a movie at that point; the idea for a documentary came later. When John learned that Vivian was not only a brilliant photographer, but was only privately a photographer and publicly a nanny, I think he realised this was a really good story and wanted to make a film, but he had no background in that area. He was an estate agent at the time. He thought he should find someone who does film for a living, and he was friendly with Jeff Garlin, the comedian from Curb Your Enthusiasm, who’s also from Chicago and a photography buff. Jeff knows me from comedy circles and through our mutual friend Michael Moore. I got my start in TV and documentaries with Michael. So Jeff called me and told me the story about Vivian. I grew up in Chicago and had actually heard the story, so I said I’d love to be involved. John and I hit it off and we started talking about all the material he had: not only the photographs but also audio recordings and Super 8 footage. They hadn’t been reported on, so I knew we’d be able to use those to help tell the story and have Vivian in her own words and behind a moving camera. Then there was this mountain of material to sift through, to try to figure out who she was: this nanny who was also a brilliant artist.
John spent a not-insignificant amount of money buying this archive of pictures at auction, but he had no idea what he was buying. Why did he do that?
Well, at the time he was a young guy working in real estate, but what he really wanted to do was be an artist (laughs). He wanted to write and take pictures and make movies but he hadn’t quite found himself yet, so he was dabbling in various things. He had the idea to do a book about his neighbourhood, so he was looking for old photographs for that. So he went to the auction and that’s where he picked up this box of Maier pictures. He paid a few hundred dollars having no idea what he was buying, which seems like a lot of money. But I think he knew that he could likely, at the very least, resell them on eBay or something. There’s a relative market for these things. It’s not something I would’ve done. I wouldn’t have spent $300, let along the thousands he’s spent since then buying up the rest of Vivian’s archive from other people who’d bought boxes. I think he spent close to $100,000. Once people heard about her they obviously asked for more than $300! But he wanted to keep the archive together so he was willing to invest in that. He’s a pretty entrepreneurial guy.
What was the process of finding the story? Did you get everybody that you approached for interview, or were there others that declined to be filmed?
We got pretty much everyone that we wanted. There was one family, the Ginsberg family, who have been quoted in other articles, who we spoke to early on. They were the first family that Vivian nannied for in Chicago and the first family that John found. They asked us not to use their interviews. It was just because, early on, this was just like a student film. They just thought John was this nice young man who was the only person that thought their nanny was a great artist! Nobody else was interested at the time, but that changed. John didn’t keep their identity secret or anything, because he wanted people to discover the story and recognise Vivian. So he was freely sharing information with local and then national media, and this poor family went from getting one call from John to getting calls from Swedish TV and newspapers all over the country, and they just got tired of it. And they wanted to protect Vivian’s privacy. They thought it was in Vivian’s best interests to keep her stuff private. We disagreed and tried to convince them, but we ultimately respected their position. And fortunately there were other families with similar stories, so we didn’t feel there were any missing pieces in that way.
There are some very different memories of Vivian, even within single families. The dynamics there are fascinating.
I think generally people remember Vivian fondly, even when they had negative experiences with her. Overall, the feeling we got was that people had a genuine affection for her, but she wasn’t a saint. It’s a mix of both, even for the mother in the Matthews family, who wistfully describes her memories for Vivian, but also had to fire her. Hopefully you get a sense that people’s relationships are complicated. A goal for the storytelling in the film was to break down some of the clichés that have already started to form around Vivian: the image of the artist as this pure, gifted person creating private art for art’s sake that wasn’t intended to be seen. We obviously disagree with that!
That’s an interesting point, isn’t it? Are you going against Vivian’s own wishes by making her work public? Kafka explicitly forbade the publication of his work after his death and Max Brod completely ignored him. But if Brod hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have Kafka.
Exactly. It’s a similar story with Emily Dickinson too. The world is a better place for having Kafka’s stories and Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I would put Vivian Maier’s photographs in that category too. The parallel is there, for sure.
Did you feel you got to the bottom of the Vivian Maier mystery? To an extent we don’t find Vivian Maier at all…
(Bristling slightly) What would constitute “finding” her? What are we looking for, exactly?
Well, for example, there’s the genealogist that hits a complete wall in tracing her personal history…
Well, what we learn from him is that this is an incredibly private family that splintered. She was born in New York but her mother was French and her father was Austrian and she moved with her mother back to France for periods of her childhood. The father seems to have left the family at some point; there seems to be some rift in the family that an aunt alludes to. So yeah, it’s left a bit of a mystery, but I’m not sure what the answers to those would tell us about what, to me, is the central story that I was interested in, which is about what it takes to be an artist. When we started out, the angle was about how a nanny could come to be a great artist. But we had it completely backwards. Being a nanny was a means to an end. Vivian was a dedicated artist who worked tirelessly for decades, sometimes shooting a roll of film a day, and never wavered from that. That, to me, is the lesson, and I like the tension we get from people making these very strong assumptions about her. Lots of people have a stake in wanting to pin down what Vivian wanted and intended, and making lots of assumptions about her sense of privacy, because it fits very well with the narrative of the pure artist.
Do you think there’s more to find?
I don’t know if there’s more work out there in other storage lockers, or work that was destroyed. Someone could come forward and say they published Vivian in a small magazine in Chicago for ten years. I suppose so. We didn’t put this in the film, but we found a note in Vivian’s stuff that was from a local, suburban newspaper editor, saying, ‘Vivian, you cover the speaker and so-and-so will cover the crowd…’. So it sounds like she did do some freelance photography. I don’t know whether that work ever appeared in a newspaper anywhere. We haven’t been able to find it. There’s also her letter to the printer in France, saying she’d like her work to be printed and that she thinks it’s good. She had this postcard business going with him, selling postcards of her landscapes, so she was making attempts here and there that we know of – and maybe there were more – to make a business out of her photography. So in the film we have people saying she’d have hated all this attention, but I’m not so convinced that they’re right. Having spent this many years puzzling over her story, it strikes me as much more plausible that Vivian did try to share her work in various ways, and that her obscurity and secrecy is more an accident of history than something she did by design. History and intention aren’t the same things.
It’s fascinating that she always had the camera in plain sight, and yet nobody seems to have ever wondered what she was doing with all the pictures.
I think maybe they just understood the relationship. Maybe they thought they were her bosses and employers, and the fact that she didn’t want to share her private life with them didn’t seem that strange. They played their roles: she as the domestic worker and they as her bosses. You’d like to think, with hindsight, that if there’s a brilliant artist right next to you, you’d ask to see their work. But you don’t know they’re brilliant, and that’s how we miss each other and fail to understand one another and relate to one another. Instead we make assumptions and see each other in a certain light that keeps us from truly connecting. There’s a sadness in that. There’s a great line from American Pastoral, by Philip Roth, that’s all about this, about how humans get each other wrong. They try to let down their defences and put aside their assumptions, and yet again and again, we get each other wrong. Maybe we should give up on the idea of getting each other right or wrong and just get on with things, but, Roth says, if you can do that, well lucky you!
Does Vivian’s work develop chronologically?
She did shoot with a box brownie camera early on, which is pretty rudimentary and there’s only so much one can do with that. It’s when she starts to use the Rolleiflex that she really develops technique and skill. Her photographs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I think, are the most iconic, partly because of the subject matter and the nostalgia that we all have about that period. They’re also really beautiful and kind of classic street photography, reminiscent of other photographers that she often gets compared to, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt. But she continues to experiment, with 35mm and colour and, later in her life, abstracts and stuff out of focus. She shoots lots of puddles and graffiti and the pictures become less about connecting to people, and more about her environment. So there’s development, but it’s still a bit of a mystery as to how she became such a skilled photographer without, as far as we know, any formal training. Talking to the experts, the stuff she does with exposures where there are layers of reflections and sophisticated light levels… She really is a master photographer.
Was she still taking pictures right up to the end of her life?
We know she was still shooting as late as 2002 or thereabouts. We know from one of the photography stores that she frequented in Chicago that she bought film as late as 2005. We also know from the people who knew her in Rogers Park, where she spent the last few years of her life, that she was not carrying a camera anymore by that point.
When did the interest start to build? There’s mention in the film that nobody is interested in exhibiting the pictures. That’s clearly not the case any more!
John initially reached out to museums and institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA, Tate Modern and so on, looking for help because he didn’t know what to do. When their help wasn’t forthcoming he turned to other photographers, like Joel Meyerowitz, who’s in the film, and Mary Ellen Mark and others. Eventually he got to the Howard Greenberg gallery, which represents Cartier-Bresson’s work, and he found people to help him there. But in terms of the finances of it, he was on his own, so he continued to pay to have the work scanned and archived and stored and eventually printed, and the sales of the prints paid for some of the other stuff. The museums have been slow to respond, but maybe that’s not so surprising. It’s not like you can just walk in with a box of negatives and they’ll say, ‘Welcome to the canon’! It doesn’t work like that, and we recognise that. But in this case John did do a kind of ‘end run’ around those institutions as well as going directly to the public, which is possible now because of the internet; putting Vivian’s images out on Flickr was what first ignited all of this. The first piece of advice John got was that he had to keep the archive together and not allow it to be split up and fractured.
And did you always plan a theatrical feature? You didn’t just want to make a documentary for TV?
I really wanted people to see this in theatres. At first we thought it might be an hour on public TV, but to me, this is a great detective story: a story of the discovery of the work of a brilliant artist that reveals that she led a double life, and kind of lived a lie. She made this enormous sacrifice in order to be an artist and that can teach all of us. In order to be any kind of artist, you do the work, day after day. It’s not glamorous; it’s not romantic. It takes time. The explanations for why Vivian didn’t show her work are kind of mundane, I think. The fact is that showing your work is intimidating. You risk rejection. It’s also really expensive to print photographs, it’s time consuming, it’s a skill you have to acquire and experiment with, and logistically you have to have space. Here’s Vivian moving from house to house… It’s not the fairy tale of the genius artist who’s too good for the public. For me, it’s more heroic than that.
Finding Vivian Maier was released in the UK on July 18, 2014.