Charlie Siskel and John Maloof Q&A: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’
The work of street photographer Vivian Maier has both excited and confounded the art world, not least of all because her thousands of photographs remained largely unseen until after her death. In her lifetime, Maier was known only as an eccentric nanny and housekeeper, and it came as a surprise to those who hired her that an artist was living amongst them.
"Finding Vivian Maier," the Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof, seeks to uncover the mystery of her life, and the two sit down with Gold Derby for an exclusive audio interview.
"I think the one thing that we learned through making this film," says Maloof, "is that we were using the evidence and everything to try and figure out why she was doing this, why she didn’t show the work, and I think what it boils down to is that, in a way, she needed to do this. 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. So as we sometimes say, she was an artist masquerading around as a nanny, because she put her art first, and her job was kind of like the second most important thing in her life."
"“She’s not the first artist to have to keep a day job," adds Siskel. "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 bi-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 has become 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. He says, "The human condition, or the human experience, is a term that means a lot to a lot of street photographers. 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."