Finding Vivian Maier  

by directors Charlie Siskel & John Maloof

Vivian Maier loved a good story.

A father walks away from his home and family one day and starts a new life. A renowned investment banker defrauds his clients, stealing millions. A nanny takes 100,000 photos and leaves them in storage lockers, never sharing them.

Vivian Maier knew a good story when she heard one.

People often ask, “Why didn’t Vivian Maier share her photographs?” This film is our answer to that question.

Scientists may be searching for the single gene responsible for artistic talent and the gene that causes career ending shyness. Because we are filmmakers and not scientists we answer the question with a story, not with a formula or genetic code. Science can’t tell us how to live or what we should do as human beings. For that we have artists and the stories they tell through their novels, paintings, photographs, even movies.

How do we become who we are? How did Vivian become an artist who never shared her work?

Some suggest Maier was creating art for art’s sake, that she shielded her work from others in order to keep it pure. We like to ascribe this romantic image to certain artists. It makes them mysterious and somehow nobler than the rest of us who share endless streams of digital pictures of our cats and our feet. It also assumes anonymity is something these artists choose.

But the story of how tens of thousands of Maier’s remarkable photographs came to sit in storage lockers rather than in museums can’t be reduced to artistic idiosyncrasy. People’s stories are messier, more complicated, but also more mundane than that. There’s money for starters. Processing film and printing photos and storing them is expensive. It all takes up space and isn’t easy, it’s highly technical, etc., etc. These more practical considerations, although unromantic, may do more to explain Maier’s isolation than assuming it was a quest for artistic purity. 

The fact is, Vivian knew she was talented and she did attempt to share her work, as we show in the film, even if her efforts were doomed to fail or were abandoned. She may have feared criticism and rejection. Who doesn’t? Other parts of her personality—her hoarding and obsessive tendencies—no doubt got in the way and added to her isolation. Time itself may have been the greatest burden. How easy is it for any of us to change, especially those things that, over time, become a part of how we see ourselves?

The central tragedy of Maier’s life, as we tell her story, was that she did not get to see the effect her work would have on the world, the way it would inspire and move people. But that is not the end of her story, because Vivian is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

While she was a private person, it is important to remember that Maier meticulously preserved her work. She did not destroy it. The opposite. She painstakingly organized it and kept it secure, all at considerable cost while living meagerly herself. Maier made heroic sacrifices for her art, again and again, both in making it and keeping it safe.

Because her work has changed our lives—John’s in particular—we are forever indebted to her. That is why a share of the proceeds from sales of her work and our film will be used to create an endowed and permanent scholarship—the Vivian Maier Scholarship—at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an institution that was important to Vivian. Every year, young photographers will receive financial assistance allowing them to pursue their art with some of the economic burden lifted, thanks to Vivian Maier. This gift will be another of Vivian’s gifts to the world and another part of her legacy and her story.

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