The best thing that can be said about The Vivian Maier Mystery – a documentary about the photographer Vivian Maier, whose works were discovered and lauded posthumously – is that it gives an excellent idea of her body of work and just how uniquely talented she was. This is no faint praise. Given the pride she took in her privacy, it’s a wonder the researchers were able to find out as much as they did about her. And in any case, possibly the best thing a documentarian covering the life of a photographer can do is to accurately represent the artist’s work.
This is exactly what the film does admirably, displaying a broad range of photos, sometimes in quick succession and sometimes at a more leisurely, reflective pace. The viewer is perhaps left with more questions than answers regarding the life of Vivian Maier, but the film gives us an excellent opportunity to get to know and appreciate her work – whetting our appetites to learn and see more of her incredible archive of gritty, poetic, and truthful photos. That’s really the best thing that can come from a documentary like this, awaking the viewer’s curiosity and admiration, inspiring us to look beyond the film and conduct our own research into the life and work of the film’s subject. In this, The Vivian Maier Mystery succeeds brilliantly.
Vivian Maier was born in New York, grew up in France, and spent the greater part of her life living in Chicago, where she worked as a live-in nanny during the 50s and 60s. During that time, she spent nearly all her money and free time on her obsessive photography hobby. She spent her days off traveling by train to the most downtrodden areas of Chicago, documenting the everyday lives of people along the street. She had an excellent eye and an uncanny way of making herself invisible to those around her, eliciting an openness of expression and a special candidness in her subjects of study.
She was one of the first “street photographers”, long before there was such a classification. The people who knew her knew little about her – only that she was an avid photographer – and rarely, if ever, saw the results of her picture taking. She spent the last years of her life partly homeless and struggling to get by on social security. It wasn’t until just prior to her death that her photographic works were discovered, and not until after she died in 2009 that she received any recognition for her work.
Not much more is known about Vivian Maier. Despite interviews with a number of people who knew Maier, including some of the children she nannied, nothing much is revealed aside from the constant facts that she was extremely private and that she was an avid photographer. Some interviews are with the people who discovered or currently curate her work, about the uniqueness of her photography and how they came by the collections.
The rest of the film is filled up by showing a wide variety of Maier’s photographs. All of them are incredibly striking – many of the subjects caught in such candid openness that many photographs seem intensely private. We feel she has somehow captured the soul of these people, and in the process captured the essence of a specific time and place. Whether she meant it to be or not, her photographs are a socio-economic commentary that conveys the great disparity between the privileged and the poor. At the same time, they stand as an incredibly detailed, emotional time capsule – an archive of an era.
Vivian Maier seemed to stand outside that world, that era – a true spectator of the events and people that make it up – apart, but present. She is indeed a mystery, and one that is not likely to be solved.