By Gina Joseph
@ginaljoseph on Twitter
Nobody knew her. Nobody saw her work. But thanks to a historian whose instincts led him to develop 100,000 negatives he purchased for $380 at an auction and create a documentary about her work, everyone is "Finding Vivian Maier."
Michigan audiences will have the opportunity to view the film by historian John Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel on Friday at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak.
"Her work is awesome," said Lois Ryzk, a Shelby Township photojournalist and creative photographer after seeing some of Maier's black and white photos being shared online. "Many of the images remind me of the photographs I aspired to create while studying photography at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the early '80s. I would spend hours a day canvasing the streets, looking for the right shots, the right stories."
Of particular interest to Ryzk was Maier's photograph of an older gentleman wearing a suit and cap looking down on Maier's lens with a grimace that shows every hard-earned wrinkle on his face. "This man's story has a lot of chapters," Ryzk said. "The collar to his suit coat and overcoat are up and is tie is askew. So I am guessing it has been a long day. He is looking right at her face (not the camera) and from the look of the lines of the doorway behind him, Maier is using a wide angle lens. That means she was pretty much in his face - which takes a lot of guts."
That much was known of Maier: She had gumption and no problem invading people's spaces whether it was strangers living their everyday lives or the children she watched as a nanny for Chicago's bourgeois families. What wasn’t known is why she never revealed her work.
In 2007, as president of a local historical society, Maloof was coauthoring a book about Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood. Having been raised by a mom who knew what treasures that could be found at auctions and flea markets and in need of local photos for the book, Maloof visited a nearby auction house. It's there that he discovered a box of negatives. He could tell by some of the frames that they were scenes of Chicago so he placed a bid on the lot. He won the box but set it aside in a closet when it appeared that they would not be suitable for the book. After the book was published, he revisited the box of negatives and realized that what he had was not the waste of some zealous amateur but the work of an undiscovered artist.
It inspired the historian, pictured below, to take up her craft and when nothing but an obituary from 2009 was found, her cause.
- "Who was she? Would she like what I'm doing? Why did she hide her photos and her personal life from others? Who the hell is this woman? She started to seem like some mythical person," said Maloof. Eventually, he found about 100 people who had contact with Maier and were able to share what they knew (or didn't know). Many were adults who were once under her care as a nanny or their parents, among them a single dad named Phil Donahue. The former daytime TV host recalls watching Maier stick her Rolleiflex camera into a trash can to take a picture. "I thought, 'Well, they laughed at Picasso,'" he says in the film.
"We all choose what we want the world to know about us and yet in the end we can't help but reveal ourselves," said co-director Charlie Siskel, who is the nephew of the late Gene Siskel, of movie reviewers Siskel and Ebert fame. Maier worked as a nanny but she also worked very hard at her craft. As Siskel pointed out, artists will do whatever it takes to do their art. "Writers are people who write. Painters are people who paint," Siskel said. For Maier, being a nanny provided room and board but also companionship and subject matter.
- Among the thousands of photos in her collection are shots of children being children. It also enabled her to travel around the world for images of life in other countries. Siskel said it may be that if Maier had her choice the world would know nothing of her life or her photographs. She chose to conceal herself and hide her art during her lifetime.
"But art is not a contest. It's not a sport. There are no rankings or winners or losers in that sense," Siskel said. What's important is that ever since Maloof posted some 100 photos of Maier's work in a discussion on the online photo site Flickr (which literally blew up), people have been interested in her work.
- "I think it will inspire female photographers to look at more than just the obvious picture and to take chances," Ryzk said of Maier's work and the soon-to-be-released documentary. "I would very much like to see a display of Maier's work come to the Detroit area."
The Main Art Theatre is located at 118 North Main St., Royal Oak. For showtimes, call 248-542-5198.