The work of street photographer Vivian Maier is highly prized by art critics and collectors today, but was largely unseen until after her death in 2009. In her lifetime, Maier was known as an eccentric nanny and housekeeper, so her employers were surprised to learn about her secret life when filmmakers Charlie Siskel and John Maloof recently interviewed them for “Finding Vivian Maier,” an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature.
“She wanted to express herself in her art, but I think the validation of the art community obviously wasn’t as important to her as it is to a lot of people,” Siskel tells Gold Derby. “So, as we sometimes say, she was an artist masquerading around as a nanny, because she put her art first, and her job was the second-most important thing in her life.
“She’s not the first artist to have to keep a day job,” he adds. “It’s the exception to find artists who are able to support themselves professionally. You look at someone like Franz Kafka: he worked as an accountant. So it’s not that it’s surprising that a nanny could be a brilliant photographer – that certainly isn’t what we’re implying – in fact, what’s remarkable is that Vivian was able to juggle these two kinds of separate lives, sometimes putting them together, literally taking the kids on these kind of wild adventures and field trips into the inner city of Chicago and New York. It wasn’t necessarily to show the kids a good time – it was probably to take her pictures – and maybe a by-product of that was that the kids were exposed to a world they hadn’t seen before, and arguably were better for it. They got to see a side of life that few kids growing up in the sheltered suburbs got to see.”
Although she photographed a wide variety of subjects, Maier is best known for her gritty street scenes detailing everyday life. Several art critics have commended her deep understanding of the human condition, but for Maloof, who first discovered Maier’s work, that’s too simple a classification.
“The human condition, or the human experience, is a term that means a lot to a lot of street photographers,” he says. “She did capture the essence of – and had empathy for – the people that she photographed, but I’m not going to just say that that was the major thing she had going for her that made her art great or brilliant. I think that she took influences from a lot of artists, applied them to her own practice, but she was extremely smart. So she wasn’t just going out there saying, ‘I’ve seen another photographer do something like this, I’m going to do the same thing,’ or, ‘I empathize with this person, I’m going to capture that.’ She was using a myriad of different influence and her own curiosity and turning it into her own art, which I think makes it extremely powerful because of that. It’s not just one angle.”
Throughout the film, the question of why Maier’s work wasn’t widely seen until after her death is asked over-and-over again. No matter what the reason, Siskel concludes, “the heroic part of her story is that without the validation, without the promise of her work ever being seen in her lifetime, she continued to do the work for decades – half a century’s worth of work averaging at a roll of film a day – she continued to make these images without the promise of being discovered.”
“Finding Vivian Maier” is ranked in third place amongst Gold Derby Experts with odds of 16/1. It’s also ranked third by our Editors, Users and Top 24 Users, giving it official, composite odds of 25/1. Make your predictions here and compete to win our contest prize of $1,000.
Listen to the audio version of our chat with these Oscar nominees below.