Vivian Maier, The Mysterious Nanny Behind A Trove Of Brilliant Street Photography

The Mystery Of Vivian Maier, The Most Famous Street Photographer No One Actually Knows

The story of Vivian Maier is probably one of the art world's most compelling mysteries. A nanny by profession, she was an alarmingly talented and vastly prolific photographer whose keen eye for the mundane produced some of the 20th century's most intriguing works of street photography. At times she was a Mary Poppins, trekking across a city like Chicago with a gaggle of children passing like ducklings behind her. At other times, she was Weegee, tuned into the pulse of urban centers, her lens drawn to crowds of celebrity, crime and everything squished in between.

The juxtaposition of being a lifelong caretaker in one moment, chasing kids and bickering with parents, and a relentless documentarian on the other, churning out rolls of film a day, is enigmatic in itself. But the real kick is that Vivian Maier is a name no one truly knew until about 2007. It was then that a former real estate agent named John Maloof unknowingly purchased a box of her photographic negatives for $400. Fast forward through a heavy dose of research and detective work, and you have "Finding Vivian Maier," the Oscar-nominated film that recounts the life of a woman the art world reveres, but no one actually seems to know.

Vivian Maier self-portrait from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s FINDING VIVIAN MAIER. Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.

Maloof worked with "Bowling for Columbine" filmmaker Charlie Siskel to create the documentary, a portrait of Maier, a woman of French ancestry who many met, but few understood, as countless interviews Maloof and Siskel conducted with the children she nannied and the mothers she encountered reveal. At best, and perhaps most plausibly, she was a devoted photographer who resorted to childcare in order to sustain her relentless love of art. At worst, according to more wild accounts of her life, she was a spy, dropped into the American hinterlands with a fake French accent and a penchant for hoarding newspapers and ephemera in the various homes she occupied throughout her largely nomadic life.

However, the film is as much a speculative glimpse into the psyche of a late photographic icon as it is the story of a local historical society president who simply got lucky and proceeded to make the very most of his good fortune. Maloof started a blog devoted to Maier's work and staged her first (posthumous) gallery show, eventually identifying Maier's closest -- and contested -- relative in order to attain the rights to Maier's work. The documentary is just one piece of a massive campaign to bring Maier to the world's attention. And while Maloof might not be the only collector vying to maintain Maier's legacy, he's certainly the most ardent.

Ahead of the 2015 Academy Awards ceremony, we chatted with Maloof and Siskel about the making of a Vivian Maier film and the fate of a woman photographer catapulted to fame without her consent.

vivian maier

How do you describe Vivian Maier to someone who’s never encountered her work?

John Maloof: This is an artist who used her occupation as a nanny to allow her to execute her work. She was an artist first; an extremely private person who made thousands of photographs in her lifetime, never really showing them to anybody. Really, it’s hard to describe in short, because there’s just so much to unpack.

Charlie Siskel: Yes. Vivian was really a larger-than-life character. She seems right out of fiction, but she was a real person. A nanny by day, and secretly a brilliant artist who averaged a roll of film a day. As a woman, she traveled the world, traveled to inner cities and the roughest parts of town, often alone. Sometimes she had the children in tow, taking them to skid row and slaughterhouses to take pictures. But like John said, she was first and foremost an artist. Through and through. She wasn’t just a dabbler, she was committed to developing her art and her eye, and she worked at it tirelessly. She was dogged in her pursuit of art.

Of course, as we know she didn’t really get to share her work during her lifetime. Partly because of her private nature, and perhaps partly because of the challenges that all artists face. And by that I mean risk of rejection. She might have shied away from sharing work because of that. It was also expensive and labor intensive to print photography while moving from house to house [nannying for families]. I mean, she was ultimately creating art in order to make the work and not because she was hoping for or planning on recognition. But I don’t think she was necessarily determined to hide her work. Vivian knew that she was a great artist, and she meticulously saved her work. If she didn’t want it to be seen, she would have destroyed it. But in terms of the financial expenses and time that went into to saving the work, I think she preserved this work so that it would be seen. And thankfully it is.

In the documentary, you spend a lot of time speaking to people who encountered Vivian during her life. How many people, in total, did you end up speaking to?

JM: We probably found around 90 people who knew her, and we interviewed about 40 of them.

How long, approximately, did it take to track down this web of people?

JM: A long time. I started in late 2009 and it went until the film wrapped up. We were still talking to people and hearing back from people shortly before the final cut. You know, there are a lot of people who have the same stories, or were not really worthy of including. A lot of times, with an artist like this, with such a mystery surrounding her, people might over emphasize things that aren’t really that important.

CS: We continue to have people come up to us at screenings, who might recognize themselves in Vivian’s photographs. You know, there was the person in The Guardian, who recognized himself in one of Vivian's pictures. And there are still people who knew her, were a neighbor or friends with people she nannied for, who’ve only come forward now that the film is out. But I think the people who made it into the film are representative of the range of opinions and memories people have of Vivian.

Woman at the NY Public Library still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s FINDING VIVIAN MAIER. Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.

Did you experience any major revelations during the process of researching and making this film, that drastically changed the way you viewed Vivian?

CS: For me, the main revelation was that we came to the film -- and to telling Vivian’s story -- with this idea that Vivian was primarily a nanny who had some way lucked into taking all these pictures. That she wasn’t a professional, wasn’t a journalist. So our initial thought was: How could she have ended up taking such great photos? How did she lead this double life, as a nanny and a photographer?

And then we did a 180. Over the course of learning about her, we recognized that she was first and foremost an artist. Being a nanny was a means to an end. It allowed her to have the freedom to do her work. It started out feeling like a mystery, and part of that was wondering why she didn’t share her work. Was there some master plan or a big choice not to show it? As soon as you recognize she’s through and through an artist, these mysteries start to make a little more sense. She lived as many artists do; doing whatever it takes. She was making art she felt compelled to do, and she had to make sacrifices. For Vivian, that meant being a full time nanny, and having this double life.

JM: I totally echo what Charlie said. But also, with her character, as we learned more about her, I realized how much of a real, kind of proud and strong woman she was. In the sense that she didn’t care about opinions that were cast upon her, or how she came across to people. She was completely alone in this profession, and she had a kind of punk rock attitude for a nanny. If she wanted to travel the world for a few months, she’d tell her employers that her job would be there when she got back. And she’d go alone with her camera to all these destinations that you’d think somebody like her wouldn’t even consider. But she wasn’t a stereotype of a nanny. She doesn’t fit the mold. She didn’t take what was given; instead, she made her own plot in life.

CS: Vivian was a force of nature. Some people describe her as reclusive. I think Vivian was the opposite. Sure she was private about the details of her life, and she didn’t share them with the people in the film. But many of them were her employers or friends of her employers. How much do we share about our private lives and artistic inspirations with employers? Vivian was, as we show in the flm, out there with her equipment making mini documentaries and interviewing people about the political issues of the day. She didn’t have outlets for her work that we have today. She couldn’t have a blog or a podcast. But these are the kinds of things that she was really creating.

Man being dragged by cops at night still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s FINDING VIVIAN MAIER. Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.

One of my favorite, sort of recurring moments in the documentary is when some of Vivian’s acquaintances speculate on whether or not she was a spy, or whether or not she spoke in a fake French accent. To what extent are you willing to indulge wild theories like these?

JM: That reminds me of a question we’ve been asked a lot: Do you have a hard time getting [people who knew Vivian] to talk to you? The answer is no! For some reason, the people who hired her or kind of knew her, I think that they have their opinions, and now that they know she’s a brilliant photographer, they want to have their say. Now all of a sudden, they’re connecting the dots, trying to figure out what drove her. One of them is, you know, the spy story and the fake French accent story. Who knows? Even some of the other stories, people are making them larger than what they really are. It was interesting, now all of a sudden her employers were talking about things that they’d once just shoved under the carpet. It’s kind of interesting.

CS: We did want to play with these, at times, wild theories. We play with that in the scene, for example, when one of the people wonders whether she was a spy. And then we sort of created this debate between two people who knew her very briefly, but they had very strong opinions about her accent. And conflicting ones! It shows that our memories are flawed, and we as human beings can get each other wrong as often as we get each other right. It’s all an exercise in trying to pin her down, which becomes in some ways a speculative enterprise. And that can be misguided.

Another moving moment in the film is when you travel to France to speak with people and relatives who knew her as a child. Did you meet Sylvain Jaussaud, the legal "heir" to Vivian’s work, on this trip?

JM: Yes, I met him on that trip. Before the genealogy confirmed who’s who, or that he was the so-called heir. All I knew at the time was that these were her relatives. Actually, meeting Sylvain was a huge moment for me. I didn’t know Vivian had given any photographs to anybody, outside of a few snapshots of children. Those were family photos, not her art. But [Sylvain], he had a photo that Vivian had taken, and I actually had a duplicate copy of the same photo in my archives. It was the exact same paper, so I knew she made this. I was completely taken aback. Then he pulled out her mom’s camera, and photos of him and Vivian as babies. I thought, wow, this is a real relative.

Recently, another man -- lawyer and photographer David C. Deal -- has moved to identify a relative he believes is the legal heir to Vivian Maier’s collection. Can you comment on the state of that case?

JM: That other relative, I knew about way, way, way before David Deal came into the picture. So it wasn’t a big surprise. Based on the advice and the research and all the people involved in Vivian’s genealogy, we just didn’t go through that guy. We went through Sylvain. Now it’s, like, kind of blown out of proportion. There are no lawsuits, just to be clear. You know, a probate case was opened, and we’re working on some sort of agreement that we hope we can do. Anyway, it’s not like he found a relative that we didn’t know about.

CS: What was wonderful about the actual connection Sylvain had and has to Vivian was that they had spent parts of their childhood together. They had fond family memories, and it seemed that he was really the only living person who had these. No one else had come forward with any real connection. So, as an outside observer to that part of the story, I speak for many people who say that it would be a tragedy if Vivian’s work were threatened or withdrawn from public view. If the public were to lose out, in order for lawyer’s to win...

Has the case actually resulted in any institutions pulling Vivian’s work?

CS: It doesn’t seem that it’s going in that direction.

African-American Man on Horse NYC still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s FINDING VIVIAN MAIER. Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.

The documentary is as much about Vivian as it is about you, John, and your experience discovering a previously unknown artist. Was this an intentional part of the storytelling?

JM: When we first started to work on the structure of the film, it was up in the air, but it became an obvious way to go. To tell the two stories -- my story of discovering Vivian’s life, and this detective journey. What better way to show the mystery than through me, who actually lived it? It is a documentary after all, so why not show it through the eyes of the person who experienced it? So we filmed it that way. I’m there with the subjects and I’m there in France.

CS: As a detective story, and as a mystery story, it helped to have a central character who is the detective. And not only was John doing this detective work, the viewer gets to feel as though they are making the discoveries alongside John. That’s certainly how I felt. I wasn’t there when he opened the first box of photos, or when he contacted the first family. But I got to feel that I was along for this roller coaster ride of discovery. And John then became an advocate for Vivian. He is not just looking to uncover the facts of Vivian’s life and learn about her story, he becomes an advocate her her work right from the beginning. He can be seen in the film sort of overwhelmed with the work ahead of him in this capacity. He needed help, and he reached out to various institutions but they didn’t respond in the way that he hoped. And we wanted to track that journey too -- how he mounted Vivian’s first show in Chicago, and the way Vivian went from a complete unknown to one of the more recognizable figures in the photography word.

Was there any aspect of Vivian’s life you wish you would have been able to address in the film that just didn’t make the final cut?

JM: Short answer -- no!

CS: Well, one thing that we didn’t end up figuring out was that Vivian, along with all of these sort of journalistic endeavors that she was doing, would take these Weegee-like crimes scene photographs at night. She was roaming the streets as if she’d had a police scanner, finding these crime scenes and shooting the rough areas of town. And she’s also show up at press conferences or parades, documenting the goings-on. One thing we found a lot of, and some of which has been displayed but didn’t make it into the film, was that she would show up at movie openings in the press scrum. She’d be in there taking pictures as if she were a stringer. Taking pictures of John Wayne, Lena Horne, Audrey Hepburn. There she is clicking away as if she’s a member of the press corps. But we just never ended up fitting it in.

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Vivian Maier

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