Posted April 27, 2014 by Jeff in Flicks

Finding Vivian Maier: An artist’s double life

A fascinating documentary about a nanny who took more than 100,000 photographs but never had a single gallery show, Finding Vivian Maier grew out of John Maloof’s random discovery of her negatives (he bought a box of them at an auction). The documentary traces that discovery and then follows Maloof as he unearths her life story. Charlie Siskel, who co-directed the film with Maloof, recently phoned from his Los Angeles home to talk about the project.

How’d you come to this project?
I heard about the story when it was first written about in Chicago magazine, I believe, and I think there was a something about it on local PBS channel when a show about of work was first held. I did not immediately think it would be a documentary or great film. I probably should have. It was about a year later that I got a call from Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm who had befriended John [Maloof] and was helping him out. He told me Maloof wanted to make a documentary about Vivian and that he was the one who championed her work.

What did you think?
I jumped at it and got on the phone with John and talked about what he had. He had Super 8 footage and audio recordings. I thought it was perfect . . . too good to be true. She was no longer alive, but we would have the next best thing. I think initially I was drawn in to the story the same way everyone is—by the headline “Nanny Takes Hundreds of Photos, Never Shows Them, and Now She’s Hailed as one of the Great Photographers of the 20th Century.” It seemed like a great story to tell, a person leading a double life. In starting to do the digging and figure out how to tell the story, I sensed there was this mystery about why she kept that part of herself hidden. The more time we got to spend time with people who knew her only as a nanny and the more time I started thinking about her as a character whose story we were telling, I thought the initial headline gets it wrong. She wasn’t a nanny who took a bunch of pictures that happened to be good.

She was very consciously and in a dedicated way, a true and brilliant artist who worked endlessly and tirelessly making great art. She masqueraded as a nanny. It was a way of being the artist who she was. It was a means to an end.  

And what about John, who discovered her work?
John Maloof’s story is fascinating. He’s a great character himself. He managed to do what seems like the impossible. People told him he was crazy to spend all his time and resources and money digging through these belongings and negatives. It’s to his credit that he was not deterred. He sought out the expertise of people who do know these things, not only with the film. He is not afraid to collaborate. It’s the same with the archive. He sought out other people who knew what they were doing and helped him handle it all. John has the weight of this responsibility and knew he had to work with a gallery. John gave up some degree of control and financially had to share everything with them. It was very wise on his part. It was the right thing to do.

You had so much material to work with for the movie. How challenging was it to put it all together?
That was the work of close to two years off and on. Even as we were shooting, we were looking at the material. There was some kind of editing going on in our heads as we strung together narrative. There were already ideas percolating in the edit of how to organize the story. We had to weave together the detective work about who was this artist who didn’t live as an artist. We also wanted to tell the story of the discovery. We wanted to validate her life’s work. That mission had to be interwoven in some way. There were times when the structure wasn’t working at all and the idea of interweaving those stories was almost abandoned at one point.

What about all the material?
The overall project was daunting to have this mountain of material, both the photographs and the audio. Also, the “evidence” for what we lay out and represent as an archaeological dig. He lays it out in a gridlock pattern. Almost like you lay out a dig. The other thing is that you can’t order everything or sift through every single business card and receipt if you want to put a film out. What was liberating about that is the realization that just because you’re finding evidence, doesn’t mean that it’s evidence of anything important or interesting. It’s like a detective story. When they’re trying to solve a crime. They’re looking for a perpetrator. They’re looking for a weapon or the missing Malaysian plane. They all know what they’re looking for. They either find it or they don’t. It’s harder to say when you have “found” Vivian Maier. You don’t always know what you’re looking for. While I started out thinking I was looking for this woman as a double life, what I started to realize was really important is that she was an artist. It’s the story of someone who was misunderstood and not known during her lifetime. She made the sacrifice that all artists make really and she lived a lie and kept her art a secret and living this double life to make it possible. In sifting through the evidence and looking at interviews and the elements of the story, I wanted to make sure that we were looking for things that pointed us there, toward telling that story. That became for me the device for deciding what goes in and what does not.

Her work is compared to that of other photographers. Do you think she would have been famous if she had shown her work?
It’s hard to say. It’s totally speculative. If you mean actively pursuing it, I think she would have been recognized as an equal to the artists who did succeed not only in making great art but in getting recognition and having their work shown in museums and galleries. Her work is that good. I talk to other artists who have said she would have made less of her art if she had become famous. I think that’s right in a simple way. As you spend time marketing and promoting and dealing with galleries and talking to museums means less time to be out taking photographs. That input from the outside has benefits but it can also start to change an artist’s direction if they get known for one thing and suddenly there’s pressure to do that thing or do only thing. It definitely alters the perception.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].