John Maloof was planning a book on the history of his neighbourhood and to that end was seeking out any photographs of the region that would prove helpful. He struck gold when he was at an auction and bid on a box of negatives, winning it and taking it home, but on examination they were not quite what he was looking for. However, that is not to say he was disappointed in his find, entirely the contrary, as the work he had discovered was of extremely high quality, yet there was absolutely no information about it contained in the box other than a name, Vivian Maier. He set out to track this mystery woman down...
You may know the story of Miss Maier as it was fairly well-publicised - this particular documentary had been beaten to the punch by a BBC programme that many considered superior - but Maloof had uncovered this story, goddammit, so here it was from his point of view. Fortunately, it was a tale worth telling twice (or thrice, there was a book from him too), as it summed up the traditional concept of the tortured artist undiscovered in their lifetime in something more twentieth century, and that has a genuine appeal to many who appreciate artistry and like the romantic notion of a possible genius who lived and died in obscurity.
Whether Maloof was wholly selfless in latching onto Maier was debatable - after this he put a biopic into development to further highlight/exploit his find, but we can be thankful to him that she was discovered at all, albeit at the point where she had no opportunity to enjoy her newfound success and acclaim. Maloof ended up with thousands upon thousands of her photographs which he promoted in galleries as some unknown Diane Arbus now revealed, and in general they went down very well with professionals, critics and public, but there was a touch of the ruthless businessman here who had stumbled upon a goldmine and was going to do everything possible to cash in.
But what if there was? At least Maier's work was now out there for all to see, pictures mostly taken from Chicago or New York though she travelled further afield as well, always with her camera around her neck ready to snap away. We find this out because there were plenty of people willing to discuss her now she had achieved renown, as she was a nanny for them, spending anything from around a year to half a decade in the employ of families to tend to their children. Every one of them remembers her as an eccentric, never married, no family and only the occasional friend to speak of, and that she died in poverty in a flat rented for her by some charitable folks who she had worked for, all her possession packed away in boxes, including that most obvious sign of a hoarder, the stacks of newspapers.
Yes, it will come as little surprise to learn that Vivian was not compelled to capture the world around her because of any sense of altruism or empathy with her fellow man (or woman), but because she was an obsessive personality who was really not in a great place as far as her mental health went. The tone darkens when we hear about her excesses, how she had a tendency to mistreat the children in her care, not all of them, but there are stories of her getting violent in moments of frustration, which another director could have changed tack as an examination of mental illness, yet somewhat to the subject's disservice presents this as another quirk to the crazy photo lady and leaves it at that. So this was a fascinating tale, and Maier was an undoubted talent more or less despite herself, but it shied away from some of the bigger questions about how the vulnerable are able to slip between the cracks in a society, especially one which treats them as a novelty, assuming they are even disposed that kindly towards them, which is not always the case. Music by J. Ralph.