John Maloof had no idea what he was getting when he bid on and won a trunk of old photographs and negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007. Then a real estate agent, he was writing a book on Portage Park at the time, and he bought the photos, hoping he could find some images of the neighborhood. Instead, he uncovered the work of Vivian Maier. An unknown street photographer during her lifetime, she took thousands upon thousands of brilliant images of Chicago’s people and places from the 1950s into the 1990s and stashed them away in storage lockers, never showing her work in a gallery or promoting it in any way.
Maloof didn't get the chance to meet Maier—she died at the age of 83 just days before he made that first purchase of her photographs at the auction house. But Maloof became obsessed with preserving and promoting her body of work, and he went on to buy everything he could find from other collectors who had also bought Maier’s photographs and negatives at auctions. He also began researching her life and learned that Maier earned her living working as a nanny for various families in the Chicago suburbs. "That this person who took all these really amazing and daring photos was a nanny was interesting to me," Maloof says.
But when speaking with members of one of the families Maier spent 17 years working for, Maloof found it odd that they didn’t know much about her. "They had such fond memories of her, but they didn’t know anything about her past, where she came from or her family, and I thought, this is a great story. I should start doing research for a documentary," Maloof says.
Charlie Siskel, whose credits as a film and television producer range from Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine to the Comedy Central series Tosh.O, would come onboard to co-direct, and together, Maloof and Siskel made Finding Vivian Maier, now in theaters after touring the festival circuit.
Siskel, who makes his directorial debut with Finding Vivian Maier, got involved in the project because he was inspired by the quality of Maier’s images and her devotion to photography. As we see in the film, she didn’t tend to family bonds or a social life as an adult—she simply lived to roam the streets of Chicago taking photographs, relying mostly on various Rolleiflex cameras to capture her subjects over the years. "I’ve always admired great artists and their ability to do their work and take incredible risks without any guarantees, without any sense that there will be a reward for it in the end. I’m more risk averse in my own life," Siskel says. "So I’ve been lucky enough to work on documentaries, which are really a labor of love, but I balance that with other work that is more commercial."
The pre-production of Finding Vivian Maier was paid for via a Kickstarter campaign. Maloof and Siskel then funded the production out of their own pockets, giving them control of how the film would be made.
It wasn’t an easy film to make due to the simple fact that Maier was a loner. "The biggest challenge in making the film was finding people who knew her," Maloof says. When he did track down people who knew Maier, he conducted only the briefest of telephone interviews before meeting them in person to film them. "When I found a lead that paid off, I didn’t want to exhaust the spontaneity of their story over the phone," Maloof explains. "I basically got the gist of how long they knew her and what kind of relationship it was, and I ended the phone interview. I didn’t want them to tell me everything until we met."
So it was while shooting the film that Maloof and Siskel made all kinds of discoveries about Maier’s complicated relationships with the families she worked for, her own family history and her dark tendencies. They were playing detective, and as a result, Finding Vivian Maier is both the unraveling of the mystery of an eccentric human being and a tribute to a gifted artist. Siskel hopes the mystery aspect of the story will draw in a larger audience that might not necessarily know much about the world of street photography and then turn them on to Maier’s work.
Among those shedding light on Maier’s life are the parents, including talk show host Phil Donahue, who hired Maier as a nanny as well as the children she cared for and often took into the city on her photography excursions. The filmmakers also meet with distant cousins of Maier’s in the French Alps. Photographers Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz weigh in on Maier’s talent as a photographer.
While many of Maier’s best photographs are on display in Finding Vivian Maier, the film also includes some fascinating snippets from Maier’s homemade documentary films, including one that has her investigating a murder, and an audio recording that finds her interviewing Chicagoans about President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Given the wealth of material, it took editor Aaron Wickenden close to a year to cut the documentary. "There were just many challenges in both getting the tone right and how to structure her story, how to tell the story," Siskel says.
By the end of the film, Siskel’s perception of his subject changed drastically. "Here was someone who initially I thought was this nanny who happened to take all these incredible pictures, and by the end of the process, I had come to feel that Vivian was 180-degrees the opposite of that," Siskel says, "She was truly an artist who was masquerading as a nanny."