“I’m not known for my documentaries,” Garlin admitted at TheWrap‘s Award Series screening of “Finding Vivian Maier.” But after watching a news report about Maier — a mysterious woman who spent her life as a nanny but secretly took extraordinary street photography — Garlin said he instantly realized, “Wow. This would make a great documentary. That was my first thought.”
“Finding Vivian Maier” is one of five films nominated for best documentary by the International Documentary Association.
Garlin told TheWrap’s Steve Pond that he immediately got in touch with John Maloof, an amateur historian in Chicago who had become Maier’s champion after stumbling across a box of her negatives at an auction.
“(John) was having trouble — he wanted to make (Vivian’s story) into a documentary,” Garlin recalled. “I said something to him that should never be trusted: ‘I’ll produce it for you, and I don’t want anything.’ You never believe that! But with me it was the truth.”
Garlin connected Maloof and producer Charlie Siskel (nephew of the late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel) who became the film’s co-director/producer.
“I stayed out of their way. There was no ego,” Garlin said. “And I got paid in four Vivian Maier prints. That’s my payment and I’m done.”
The narrative unfolds as “this incredible detective story,” in Siskel’s words, documenting Maloof’s efforts to learn who took the pictures he bought at auction. He eventually amassed over 100,000 negatives and thousands of rolls of Maier’s undeveloped film.
By piecing together clues in her photographs and from personal effects he obtained, Maloof figured out Maier’s identity and her backstory. Born in New York and raised in France, she returned to the U.S. in the 1950s becoming a nanny — first in New York and later in Chicago (she even looked after Phil Donahue’s kids for a time).
While tending to her young charges (some of whom, now adults, are interviewed in the film), Maier documented urban life with her camera — capturing images of startling intimacy. But she apparently never showed them to anyone before dying in 2009 at age 83.
“Being a nanny was really a kind of camouflage for her true calling, which was as an artist,” Siskel said during the Q&A on Tuesday evening.
“The words that come to mind (when you see her pictures) are, ‘Holy shit!’ You know what I mean?” said Garlin, a self-described photography buff. “You just look at (her work) and go, ‘What the? Are you kidding me?’ It’s like it jumps out at you it’s so great.”
Thanks to Maloof’s efforts to publicize her work, and now the documentary, Maier is becoming widely recognized as one of the great street photographers of the 20th century.
“Without John Maloof we wouldn’t have Vivian’s work,” Siskel said. “There wouldn’t be a story of Vivian Maier.”
Both Siskel and Garlin were at pains to dispel any suspicions that Maloof is profiting from the artist’s posthumous fame (he is the main purveyor of her prints).
“I’ve met a lot of people with the assumption that he’s done really well off Vivian’s work,” Garlin noted. “It’s not greed that overtakes him,” but a sincere desire to share her art with the world.
Garlin said proceeds from the sale of her work have been funneled back into curating and preserving her vast archive.
And that work continues.
“There are 700 rolls of color film that have not yet been developed,” Siskel said. “They are in cold storage … to preserve them.”