Bear with me on this for a minute. I've been musing on ailing country-music legend Glen Campbell, who has, I read the other day, been transferred to an Alzheimer's facility. In particular, I've been recalling his smash 1968 hit "Wichita Lineman," one of the great singles of his era. Written by Jimmy Webb, "Wichita Lineman" finds mystery and epic grandeur in the life of an everyday guy, a telephone worker who's out in the world, doing his job.
I thought of "Wichita Lineman" as I watched Finding Vivian Maier, an absorbing, entertaining documentary about a prolific street photographer. Vivian Maier amassed, the film reports, hundreds of thousands of negatives as she took pictures of everyday people, many of them on the sidewalks of downtown Chicago. Vivid, funny, expertly composed, sometimes gruesome, Maier's photos are a marvelous body of work. With her camera, she likewise found remarkable, subtle truths in the lives of normal folks. She has been likened to artists like Weegee and Diane Arbus. She had a gift.
She didn't share her gift in her lifetime. Like Emily Dickinson, Maier, who died in 2009 at age 83, kept her art to herself. She was discovered by Chicago photographer John Maloof, who directed the documentary with Charlie Siskel. In the manner of a video blogger, Maloof speaks directly to the camera as he recounts what happened. He bought a bunch of Maier negatives at auction for a project he was working on, and he became fascinated by the work. On the basis of the photographs and other evidence, he began tracking down people who knew Maier and piecing together details of her life
It seems not to have been a happy life. Maier made a living as a nanny in fancy Chicago suburbs like Highland Park and Wilmette; many of the film's interviewees are members of families that employed her. She took her young charges along as she roamed the city with her camera. She was intensely private and likely was mentally ill. One interview subject claims she was physically abusive. She was a hoarder who piled up newspapers in the little apartments where she lived. A former employer tearfully recalls the day she fired Maier, who had reacted explosively after some of her newspapers were discarded.
Finding Vivian Maier tells this story well, though there is something unseemly about the way Maloof promotes his work promoting Maier's work. (His archive of Maier's photographs is called -- the Maloof Collection.) My other complaint is that film is a little pat about some of its conclusions. We learn that Maier was probably sick and possibly monstrous, but then we are told, in a valedictory moment, that "she got the life she wanted." I have trouble reconciling all of that.