Interview with Charlie Siskel, Director of Documentary, Finding Vivian Maier

John Maloof stumbled upon the significant work of Vivian Maier accidentally, after he won a bid on a box of photographic negatives at a Chicago auctionhouse. In Finding Vivian Maier, Maloof, the lucky buyer of the treasure trove, follows the traces of the French-born Maier, who lived secretively in the United States as a professional nanny. We speak to director, Charlie Siskel, about his how he went about telling this fascinating story.

ASFF: For people who haven’t seen Finding Vivian Maier, how would you describe the film?
CS: It’s a kind of detective story — it tells the story of a nanny who lived through the 1950s, up to around 2000 in other people’s homes, working as a babysitter and sometimes as a maid, but who secretly was taking tens of thousands of photographs, which were discovered around the time of her death in 2009. Her work is now considered to be some of the great street photography of the twentieth century.

ASFF: How did you first learn about Vivian’s work?
CS: I learned about it really the same time as most people did, when the first exhibition of her work took place. John Maloof, who I made the film with, and who discovered Vivian’s work, found her photographs in 2007 and mounted a show of her work. That first show in Chicago was publicised and written about in local newspapers and local TV, and also got even wider attention than that. So I heard about it at that time, but there wasn’t a documentary until a while later.

ASFF: Why did you decide to get involved with the film?
John reached out to me through Jeff Garland, who signed on as an executive producer on the film. Jeff is best known for his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but he’s also a photography collector and a photography buff, and an amateur photographer himself. Well, it turns out I’m actually from the town where Vivian was a nanny. She worked for a family that lived right around the corner from my house, and the ravines that we show in the film, where Vivian took the kids to play and explore, those were the ravines in our backyard. I felt an incredibly strong connection to this world that Vivian was living in. It was very familiar to me.

ASFF: What was the hardest part of telling this story?
The big challenge overall was, I think, that we imagined this was a nanny who happened to take a bunch of really great photographs. But by the end of the film, and I hope the audience watching the film will also come to realise this, we knew that really, that gets it completely backwards. It’s actually the story of an artist, a true artist, that’s who Vivian was. Being a nanny was really more of an afterthought. So one of the challenges in terms of the storytelling then was that we were telling the story of an artist — but she doesn’t have any contemporaries who we can interview, and so on, because she didn’t live as a photographer, she lived as a nanny. So the people who could help to create this portrait of Vivian were people who knew her as the babysitter, the maid, the help.

ASFF: How did that affect the story?
It meant that in some ways, we had unreliable witnesses — they would show us Vivian as a nanny, but not as an artist. And that became part of the key to telling her story, to play with those interviews in such a way that you, as an audience, start to question what you’re learning about her because of who is telling you it. We kind of forced the issue because there are people who contradict each other in the film. The audience are being asked to think about it and decide for themselves.

ASFF: What relationship did Vivian have with the places she lived in? Did she reflect her ‘mystery woman’ images in her photography?
I think she was particularly drawn to people on the edges of the societies she found herself in, the working people, people who were maybe marginalised or in some places ignored: she was interested in how societies treat the most unfortunate of its members. She had a strong sense of social justice and an awareness of class struggle. I think you could fairly describe her as progressive, and probably a socialist, and so she was interested in capturing that in various places… She was not a recluse, as some people have described her; she was very urbane, and incredibly engaged in the world.

ASFF: Did you feel by the end of making the film that you knew Vivian?
I feel we know her in the most important way. I never set out to make an exhaustive biography, a biopic that would explore each and every dark and hidden corner of her life. To me that was never the goal, it’s not interesting, I wasn’t interested in creating a movie version of the Wikipedia entry. She is a brilliant artist and in our own way I thought that this film should be artful.

ASFF: Do you think Vivian would have wanted her photographs to be seen?
The idea that she would never have wanted her work to be seen, that those were her babies, I disagree with that completely. She was definitely private, we know that, but just because she was private, just because she didn’t share her work during her lifetime, doesn’t mean she didn’t intend to share it. I think Vivian didn’t show her work for reasons that are mundane, not romantic: it’s expensive; time consuming; she had another job; it’s logistically difficult; you need space, but here she is moving from family to family, room to room; and there are internal challenges, it’s difficult to share your work as an artist. It’s not this romantic idea that Vivian was too pure for an audience… It just doesn’t strike me as plausible that in the 1950s Vivian set out to take photographs and said to herself, “I think I’ll take tens of thousands of photographs but I’m not going to share them, ever. I’ll just take them day after day and hide them, and at the end of that I’ll have about 150,000 photographs and I’ll keep them in a storage locker. Some I’ll develop, some I’ll leave in the canisters, some I’ll print, but not many.” Humans just don’t work that way. History and intention aren’t the same.

Finding Vivian Maier screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014 The film opens in cinemas 18 July.

Anna Feintuck

1. Finding Vivian Maier, Edinburgh International Festival