“Had she made herself known she would have made herself a famous photographer,” says one woman in the film. Others repeat similar concerns, confusion, and bewilderment. Vivian Maier, a nanny, was a skilled photographer. She took lots of pictures. She did not exhibit them. They were then found by chance by John Maloof, who is determined to discover her story.
Maier was ‘enigmatic.’ A loner, dressed in loose clothes with big boots, and a simple haircut. She never had a known romantic partner or children, so the film tells us very early on. We later find out this extends to her having few friends. The children she cared for are interviewed, as well as people she lived with. The now-grown children describe her as cold, closed off. Families discuss her obsessive need for privacy and isolation, demanding that no one enters her room, asking for locks on her doors. She dressed strangely, with clothes out of date, covering her body. Interviewees offer conflicting testimony to her character, but this aids in painting Maier as a mysterious, closed-off person who never opened up to those in her life.
Maier has passed away, and was not in the film — and it’s conspicuous. For all that we get from people about her, we don’t get her own words or opinion. Everyone is able to discuss her, but she cannot speak for herself or her work. Which then begs the question: did this very private woman even want to discuss herself publicly? Would she have wanted others to discuss her and her work? Maier made no attempt to expose her art to the public, an inaction which baffles those in the film. But by all accounts she was an intelligent woman and a private woman: it’s entirely possible that she simply did not want to share her photos. She affected an accent, misspelled her name or gave out fake ones, lived an isolated life, avoided telling people her phone number or profession, requested that people did not enter her living quarters. We learn this gradually, with a sense of horror. How much are we betraying this woman’s wishes? How complicit am I by watching this film? “I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable and guilty exposing the work of a person who did not want to be exposed,” states Maloof, followed by interviewees discussing that in fact Maier would not have agreed to any of this, she would have hated it. Eventually we find out about a letter where she asks a relative in France if he would like to go into business with her, printing her photos as postcards. Finally proof: she did want people to see these pictures. Supposedly.
A narrative is formed: Maier was a nanny. We hear from the people she worked for, her landlords, the children she cared for, her friend. We see her: a stern expression and short hair; we find she wore clothes that were loose, out of date, and not very stylish. She was solitary with no spouse or children, and private. She was strange, perhaps even misanthropic, with no one truly knowing her.
Everything we hear is warped recollection and interpretation. Adults recall what they thought about Maier when they were children. Her employers or landlords interpret her behaviour. There are stated facts. For instance, Maier did hoard newspapers. Maier did take the children she cared for out and would take photos with them. Maier had little contact with family, had money problems, and took up nannying after working in a sweatshop and disliking the labour.
The problem is the unaccounted for bias and projection. It seems absurd to ask children of their recollections of an adult years later. But even more so, to ask a person’s employers, landlords, and neighbours feels odd. In all ways there is a disconnect. How could a child understand deeply the inner workers of an adult, particularly when the relation to this adult is one of work rather than anything more personal? How could a wealthy employer understand the actions of a poor employee? Through a specific group of people, a narrative is constructed for Maier, but the question is never asked if the essence of these relationships (generally professional rather than person) and social status (the employer comments on employee, the landlord comments on the tenant) — relationships in which there is always a power imbalance slanted towards the interviewee and slanted against Maier — could create a balanced portrait of anyone?
From the information collected in this film, it is possible to make another narrative. Vivian Maier was a private person who wanted locks on her door and didn’t want anyone entering her rooms, which is only natural: working for a family that she lived with, she was attempting to create a space of autonomy where the domestic labour she performed for pay didn’t leak in. It is easy to imagine that blurring the lines of a professional and personal relationship in a live-in domestic situation would not be beneficial to her, while a desire for an autonomous, personal life outside of her employers seems normal. It seems equally natural for her to not open up about her personal life to the families she worked for. She kept a certain distance from her employers, and didn’t open up fully to the children she cared for, as many adults would do. She was “just” a nanny despite her intelligence, creativity, and talent, but it is also likely that she took up the best job she could find, particularly considering her position of a single woman working from the 1950s to the 2010s. References are made to her financial difficulties, and starting job in a sweatshop, so we know she had little money. We are never told if she was educated and we know she was estranged from her family. It seems likely, then, that this “mere” nanny did not have other opportunities and could not have just gone off to be an artist or intellectual (or find a job more worthy of her photographs, which is the unspoken implication). And here one can question her asking her French relatives to publish her photos: was this an indication that she deep down wanted to share her work with the world, or was this a way of making some extra money? The letter states that it is a business proposition, and she asks for the photos to be printed in a remote French village rather than anywhere near where she lived. The film interprets this as a desire for exposure; to me it seems that that this was a way to make some extra cash with as little exposure as possible.
We have a woman who is enigmatic due to her inability to conform to proper gender roles, and due to her class. She is enigmatic because those who discuss her support these biases of what a normal (heterosexual) woman should be like, and what a poor person employed by the rich should be like, and they cannot comprehend why she was not how she should have been to them. To them, a woman needs romance. A worker needs to love her bosses. Domestic labour performed by women must involve a loving maternal bond towards the children she cares for. Then there is the enigma of Maier-as-Artist: here again she does not conform to what an artist should have been, as an artist should seek out recognition while Maier kept to herself. So the film pushes to construct Maier as the mysterious artist, mysterious because she is not a proper working class woman, and artist because we force her to be. It seems that Maier did not want to be an artist, but we cannot accept that, so we ignore her wishes.
By the end of the film, Maloof says:
But why was this person so private, yet so prolific in an art form that she never shared?
[…] She did it so it wouldn’t be forgotten.
We don’t know that at all. Maier may be the titular figure in the film, but she is not afforded a voice, because her voice might have said “Don’t make this film.” And beyond that, she is dissected by people who could not possibly comprehend her due to not only her own solitary existence, but due to their social power imbalances and blindness fueled by extreme privilege. Vivian Maier had power in her choice not to sell or exhibit her art, and with this film we take away that power, we take away her voice, and we turn her from agent to subject.