The intrigue of people living double lives always has fascinated Charlie Siskel, so when his friend, comedian Jeff Garlin, told him about a documentary involving the mysterious photographer-nanny Vivian Maier, Siskel was interested immediately. “It’s the kind of story that I love—I must have a whole Vivian Maier-style binder filled with stories about people who have these hidden secrets,” Siskel recalls. Garlin, a photography enthusiast, had offered to help John Maloof after seeing a piece on PBS about how Maloof purchased a few boxes of Maier’s photos at an auction and was trying to bring attention to her work. Garlin and Siskel, both Chicago natives, knew each other through comedy circles, and Garlin thought Siskel’s experience as a documentary producer (most notably on Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine) would be exactly what Maloof could use in telling Maier’s story. “John got a chance, as few people do, to do something truly heroic during his life,” Siskel says. “He came across this work, and he didn’t know what to do with it but he educated himself and he figured out a way, and took real risks in making sure that the work was seen and found an audience.” Siskel and Maloof worked as co-directors on Finding Vivian Maier, and Garlin serves as executive producer. Siskel recently spoke with AwardsLine about the nature of artists and the legacy Maier left behind.
At what point was John Maloof sifting through Vivian Maier’s photographs when you first came onboard the project?
John was interested in making a documentary, had started to contact some of the families, and was looking for help to make the film. My first conversation with John was about what he had, the fact that he was overwhelmed with the project. As we show, in the film, he was literally drowning in the stuff. He had hundreds of hours of her audio recordings and film that she shot, and then obviously, the 100,000-plus photographs that were in the process of being scanned. I hit on this metaphor of the way an archeologist draws a grid over an archaeological site to create order out of the chaos. That was how we mounted the camera on the ceiling of his attic and show him laying out all of Vivian’s belongings as if they’re pieces of evidence that could be scrutinized and cataloged. The maddening part of that is that some of it is evidence, in quotes, because it leads to something. It’s a note that has a phone number, and it would lead to someone that actually remembered her. If you imagine someone going through all of your drawers right now, or your closets, and finding all this stuff. A lot of it was just boxes filled with stuff that was evidence of nothing, and you don’t know which is which. That was maddening to recognize that we were detectives without really knowing what mystery we were solving.
What do you think motivated her to keep shooting?
Once you recognize that Vivian was an artist masquerading as a nanny, everything else falls away and it all starts to make a lot more sense. Only a true artist takes a roll of shots a day for five decades and meticulously saves that work, shoots self-portraits that look like the self-portraits of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. If you want to understand who Vivian was, look at how she saw herself. She sees herself as an artist. Was she the greatest nanny in the world? No. She was a force of nature, she was a singular personality, and she took these kids on these wild adventures that I think, in some ways, made them more interesting people. Maybe they started out odd and interesting or maybe it was Vivian’s influence that made them so. While other kids were taking field trips to the zoo, they were going to the stockyards and to Skid Row. Of course, we know it was partly because Vivian wanted to take pictures there, and they were along for the ride. This is a story that, for me, just gets better and better. I never tire of looking at her photographs, thinking about her story. To me, she is a great inspiration for any artist and a real example of perseverance in the face of uncertainty. I feel that Vivian intended for her work to be seen.
Was it difficult to find people to talk about Vivian?
We really did do the detective work of finding business cards and finding a phone number written on the back of a receipt. What we ended up finding, as we show in the film, is that even people who met her only once (remember her), like someone who did her a favor and drove a bunch of her boxes to someone’s house, or the guy who met her in the language lab at Northwestern University, who turned out to be a linguist and believes that he has scientific proof that Vivian’s accent was fake.
There is a family that is shown in a lot of the footage that is really the first family that Vivian was with when she first moved to Chicago, and this was in the suburbs. They were the first family that John met when he called the phone number that he had found and said, “I have the photographs of Vivian Maier” and the person on the phone said, “That was our nanny.” That family we did interview, but we didn’t include their interview in the film. We would’ve liked to have included them just because they did have such a deep connection to her. We started out the project with Vivian being a complete unknown—when they did the interview with us, they thought that this was a nice little project that would be of passing interest to very few people. John was interested all along in sharing Vivian’s work and having her gain this recognition. That’s why he mounted the show at the Chicago Cultural Center and why he was a lonely voice when the MOMAs of the world were telling him that they weren’t interested. He was sharing her story with whoever would listen. Those news outlets asked if they could contact some of the families that knew her, (and) the Ginsburg family—their name has been reported in other places—granted some of those interviews, but then they started getting phone calls from all over the world. They just found it overwhelming and decided that they just didn’t want to participate in the film anymore. Of course, we respected their request.
The film shows that Vivian left behind hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film—has that material been processed?
It hasn’t. There are still about 700 rolls of color film that are in cold storage to preserve them. The issue is that color film degrades more than black and white; it’s harder to preserve and it’s more susceptible to damage. Some of the color film that’s been developed has shown signs of damage. It’s quite expensive to try to develop it properly in order to preserve it. That has been on hold, but I think provisions are being made to try to protect it and eventually develop it. I think there’s this desire—and believe me, I relate to that—to scrutinize every last picture as if when you get to the very end of it all then the riddle will be solved. But it’s liberating to recognize that maybe even the thing that you’re looking for isn’t the right thing, that maybe the question you’re asking isn’t the right question.