To be sure, Maier was eccentric: a friendless, secretive spinster who spent her life caring for other people’s children. She was a hoarder and a person of uncertain origin: was she French or merely someone pretending to be French? On a tape found in one of those storage lockers, she can be heard supervising a game among her young charges where identities are being assigned. When one of the children asks who Maier will be, she responds, “I am the mystery woman.”
The real mystery, however, is what made that woman take those pictures, and on this subject the film is not much help, although no one seems too disturbed by that. Since it appeared in theaters this month, the documentary has received rave reviews, and understandably: Finding Vivian Maier tells a strange and intriguing story, and filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel deserve the praise they’ve received.
But as I watched the film, small alarms kept going off in my head, because questions are raised—or at least implied—but never satisfactorily answered.
Why does Maloof present himself as the sole discoverer of Maier’s work? If you read the stories that appeared several years ago when the pictures first surfaced, you know that at least three people, including Maloof, found the photos when the contents of Maier’s Chicago storage lockers were auctioned off. This is a major part of the story because it revolves around who owns what, who decides which of Maier’s images the public will see and in what form, who stands to profit, and ultimately who gets to tell and define her story.
Why does Finding Vivian Maier spend so much time interviewing the people, now grown, that she once tended as a nanny? Almost none of these people have much illuminating to say about her, other than that she was weird, secretive, and not always very nice. Moreover, most of the witnesses knew her not in her prime, but when she was older.