THE SECRET IMPRESSIONIST
Vivian Maier took a vast collection of photographs across 50 years. Only now is her incredible body of work being revealed, writes
Maier had worked for between 1956 and 1972 as a live-in nanny to three boys. Maloof made contact and went to meet the brothers. The men had kept in touch with their nanny after they had grown up and had even paid for her apartment in the last years of her life.
But Maier herself remained a mystery. “They [didn’t] know anything about her past, where she came from, even that she took good images. They knew she took photographs but they didn’t know what they were,” Maloof says. “The things they were telling me were intriguing: she was so private, she had dead bolts on her door. I was really fascinated. So I asked, ‘ Do you have any other stuff? I’d love to go through it to get a better idea of who this person was.’ They said they had a locker filled with [her things] and were going to throw it out because it was almost all just newspapers and garbage.”
Maloof hired a truck, loaded it up and drove back to his apartment, where he methodically sifted through his new hoard, lining up all the scraps of paper, looking for clues. “I had so many receipts,” he says. “And she collected so much weird stuff — political buttons, costume jewellery, there’s a lot of her mail.”
Maloof turned detective. He tracked down 90 people who knew Maier — children she had looked after, bookshop owners, people who had employed her, even a printer in France. It took over his life. Through his research and interviews, he discovered that she was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1926, to parents of French and Austro-Hungarian extraction. She grew up between New York and her mother’s home village in the southern French Alps. She and her mother left France to return to the US in 1939, but Maier lived most of her life without close friends or family. She was a solitary and eccentric figure who was interested in travelling, politics and art. She had a sense of humour and a tendency towards the underdog.
From the outset, Maloof thought it was important to document his research journey. His interviews with the families who knew Maier were fantastic material for a feature-length documentary.
“I had to learn a lot,” he says. “I had never made a feature film before.” Maier was such a singular character in her long dresses, her coats (even in the summer) and her floppy hat that she made a big impression on people, so there was no shortage of anecdotes.
Her story is told alongside her countless images, from her domestic life as a live-in nanny to her travels. (She inherited some money in the 1950s and went on a trip around the world on her own, camera — by now upgraded to a Rolleiflex — at the ready.) As well as her photographs, there are Super 8 films she made and even audio recordings.
Maloof’s story adds another layer to the film, with him obsessively sifting through the ephemera of Maier’s life in search of the identity of the photographer, who was rapidly gaining a cult following.
The film’s executive producer was Jeff Garlin, the actor, comedian and photography buff (best known as Larry David’s manager in the US sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm). He had seen the first exhibition of Maier’s work that Maloof organised at the Art Institute of Chicago in
Vivian Maier’s sharp eye for the details of
clothing is evident in this undated and