I wrote this film response for my photography class this past spring.  My analysis of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier does contain some spoilers, but the true jewel of the movie is the photographs, so I do not think my spoilers will affect your enjoyment of the documentary too much.


Vivian Maier self-portrait pastiche
One of Vivian Maier’s self-portraits (left) and a pastiche I did of it (right) for one of my class assignments.  A pastiche is an imitation of art that pays homage to the original work.

When aspiring author John Maloof uncovers the work of an obscure photographer, his journey of discovery introduces the world to Vivian Maier and inspires the creation of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier.  Both artists and art can be quite controversial, and Vivian Maier and her photographs are no exception.  At the same time, though, this film’s cinematography, storytelling, and the work of Vivian Maier that it presents are often exceptional, intriguing, and even inspiring.

From the first second to the last, Finding Vivian Maier is full of cleverly-crafted shots.  The cinematography has an appealing aesthetic, and I like the way in which the filmmakers link together interview footage of experts and Maier’s acquaintances with Maier’s photographs and personal audio recordings.  Because of the film’s clean but creative cinematography, the storyline is easy to follow and interesting without the need for dramatization or actors.  Additionally, I think the framing of certain shots is appropriate and effective.  For instance, scenes where the film zooms out to show dozens of Maier’s photos laid out in a grid exemplify the photography compositional rule of patterns and repetition, and this is a powerful visual tool for emphasizing how prolific a photographer Maier was.  Finding Vivian Maier also includes examples of compositional rules such as the rule of thirds and the use of unusual perspectives, which are nice touches in a documentary about a photographer and add interest to what might otherwise be boring footage.  Thanks to the documentary’s high quality cinematography, black-and-white photos linked with interview scenes become a seamless story which draws in the audience.

street photography MaierWhile high quality cinematography is valuable, however, the storytelling in Finding Vivian Maier is another essential part of the film.  According to what the documentary reveals, Maier is a controversial person who is lonely, perhaps mentally ill, and can be alternately wonderful or abusive towards the children she nannies.  I appreciate that the movie maintains a relatively unbiased approach to the story.  The film is full of personal accounts from people who have known Maier and the opinions of art experts, and how the filmmakers tell the story presents different sides to Maier’s life, focusing on both her strengths and weaknesses.  In addition, the fact-based storytelling method and the frequent use of interviews to stitch the story together helps promote the film’s credibility.  One aspect of the storytelling that I do not understand is why the storywriters include the uplifting discovery that Maier attempted to have her work published in the middle of the film rather than at the end.  Following this exciting revelation, the documentary highlights Maier’s mysterious life and erratic personality and concludes on a sad note with her lonely death.  This arrangement of events strikes me as an odd storytelling decision, although I do think the story ends strong in the last scene with its audio clip of Maier and a shot of one of her self-portraits being developed.

photo by MaierThe storytelling and cinematography in Finding Vivian Maier help make the documentary interesting, but Maier’s photographs are the most inspiring and intriguing aspects of the film.  Maier’s photographs range from clever to stunning to disturbing.  Just like Maier, the photographs are often full of mystery and contrasting character.  She clearly had an excellent eye for photo composition and natural talents which she honed with constant practice, resulting in the thousands of images Maloof finds in his search.  I think Maier’s persistence and boldness in taking photographs teach the importance of practice and pushing outside one’s comfort zone to achieve success in photography.  No theories can replace hands on experience.  In particular, I like how Maier’s photos are often candid and raw; they show the world as it really is with all its beauty and flaws.  I think it is intriguing that Maier was so bold in her photography because, by all accounts, she was reclusive and sometimes even scared of strangers,

In spite of her secretive life, reclusive personality, and lifelong silence about her work, Vivian Maier now has posthumous recognition thanks to Finding Vivian Maier.  More importantly, though, Maier has found a voice in her photos that will continue to speak for her.  Through the pictures, audiences can meet strangers and gain a new perspective on life and the world around them.  These images communicate everyday experiences, emotions, and scenes and also reflect the creative but eccentric artist who shot them.  Maier’s story is another example of how some of the greatest artists have broken and lonely lives, yet despite—or perhaps because of—this, they are able to capture beauty and share it with the world.


Note: Finding Vivian Maier is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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