Finding Vivian Maier a fascinating exploration of art vs. artist

One of the benefits of traveling extensively for work, especially internationally, is I have plenty of time to catch up on movies… or watch new films I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. One such film I recently watched is Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary that surprised me and made me think a lot about art vs. artist.

Finding Vivian Maier details what happened when a collector, John Maloof ,won an auction lot – an auction lot filled with thousands of film negatives. Looking at the negatives, Maloof realized that the photos were’nt just good, but great… brilliant street photography made by a photographer with a real “eye”. That photographer was professional nanny Vivian Maier, who took the photos over decades as she walked the streets of Chicago with her young wards in tow.

Why didn’t she ever print or publish these photos? Or even share them? That question is at the heart of the film, and the documentary also dives deep into what type of person Maier was. We find out through interviews with the children she took care of that she was always eccentric, and often cruel and abusive. And yet, she took photos of street people that was deeply empathetic, and almost loving in how they were framed and portrayed.

Maier was not a nice woman, and in the end she died alone, surrounded by boxes of undeveloped film and newspapers. The exploration of her life, through scraps of paper and receipts, makes you wonder why she didn’t share her work… but it also made me realize that the answer was obvious. Maier was a controlling person, and her photos weren’t for anyone but herself. She captured moments, to “own” them… and collected them like she did everything else in life (she was described as a “packrat”). I do that, myself… but I take pleasure in sharing my own “captured moments” (I have created iBooks of my photography, available here).

Would Maier have objected to seeing her photos shown and sold? Who knows. All I know is her work has great merit and beauty, and it is a wonderful bit of serendipity that they did not end up in a landfill.

Here’s the movie’s website, and trailer.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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