What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Bringing a portrait of private artist Vivian Maier to the big screen

Read the Full Transcript

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Next: the tale of a reclusive Chicago woman who some people are now calling one of the great undiscovered artists of the 20th century.

    Her story and the tale of how her street photography eventually came to light are the subject of the Oscar Award-nominated documentary "Finding Vivian Maier."

    Jeffrey Brown has our look, the latest installment of NewsHour Goes to the Movies.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Stunning photographs of Chicago street scenes from the 1950s on, they were never exhibited, never even known of until the last few years, when they became a sensation.

  • WOMAN:

    Vivian Maier.

  • MAN:

    Vivian Maier.

  • WOMAN:

    Vivian Maier.

  • MAN:

    Exhibitions in New York and L.A. and London and Chicago.

  • MAN:

    We have had more interest in this work than any other photographer.

  • MAN:

    There's one in particular that I bought which I love. The composition is slightly off to me, and I think that's why I like it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The photographer, too, was largely unknown. Vivian Maier worked much of her life as a nanny and kept her own past and her photography secret.

  • WOMAN:

    She was so awesomely unique.

  • WOMAN:

    She not an open person. She was a closed person.

  • WOMAN:

    Vivian was my nanny.

  • MAN:

    She was our nanny.

  • MAN:

    We certainly had no idea she took photographs.

  • WOMAN:

    We didn't know there was this creative person there.

  • MAN:

    She took so many photos.

  • MAN:

    Around 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film.

  • MAN:

    Eight-millimeter and .16-millimeter movies.

  • WOMAN:

    She would take us and we would just walk in the worst parts of town.

  • WOMAN:

    And I think she liked that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Unraveling this story is the focus of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Finding Vivian Maier."

    Its co-directors are Charlie Siskel and John Maloof, who first came upon and bought tens of thousands of Maier's negatives at an auction in 2007 and have spent the years since researching her life and promoting the work.

    I spoke to the two recently, and asked John Maloof if there was a moment when he first realized he was onto something big.

    JOHN MALOOF, Co-Director, "Finding Vivian Maier": No, there was no moment. A lot of people think that there was like a eureka moment or something when I discovered that the work was great.

    You have to think about it this way. If you have a box of tens of thousands of negatives, and you pick up one of the packs of negatives and look at it into light, you're not going to immediately know that the whole body of work is good. It takes a long time to kind of go through it all, understand how deep the good work goes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, Charlie Siskel, in the film, what is it about her that drew you to want to tell the story, and what did you want to bring about her and her work?

    CHARLIE SISKEL, Co-Director, "Finding Vivian Maier": Well, Vivian Maier is a fascinating character.

    She's larger than life, almost a character out of fiction, but even better than that, she — it's true. The story is true. Vivian led a double life. And that's a bit of the puzzle about her and her story that we set out to solve, to try to understand how a brilliant photographer was able to lead this sort of secret life while masquerading really daily as a nanny for over five decades, taking over 150,000 photographs, never sharing them with anyone.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The filmmakers took Maier's work to one of today's leading photographers, Mary Ellen Mark.

  • MARY ELLEN MARK, Photographer:

    Beautiful. Those photographs with children are beautiful. Beautiful sense of light, environment. I mean, she had it all.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, Charlie Siskel, it raises a number of questions, among them, sort of, who is an artist, who decides what makes somebody an artist if they're unrecognized in their own lifetime?

  • CHARLIE SISKEL:

    That's right.

    And if you look at Vivian's work, I think, you know, you don't need to be an expert in art and the history of photography to just take one look at her work and see that this is the work of a master. John has done a wonderful job in curating her work and choosing which photographs we're seeing, along with, you know, the help of others, other experts in the field.

    And so he's doing the work that Vivian really never had a chance to do during her own lifetime. And so the portrait that emerges is a portrait of a brilliant artist. You take one look at her self-portraits, for example, and you see the way Vivian saw herself. She knew that her work was good. Those portraits, those self-portraits, they are almost like the self-portraits of a van Gogh or a Rembrandt. This is how Vivian saw herself. She saw herself as a photographer and an artist.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, but, John Maloof, it also raises some other interesting questions, questions of ethics, of discovery and filmmaking, right? This was an intensely private woman. It's not clear — in fact, it looks as though she didn't want her work or her life to be out there. And that's what you have done is put it out there.

  • JOHN MALOOF:

    Vivian was doing the same thing that we're doing in a sense. She's documenting people. She's documenting the not-so-pretty lives of people that are kind of on the margins of society.

    So she's doing the same type of job that we're doing by documenting other people's lives.

  • CHARLIE SISKEL:

    We're dealing with a story of a person's life and all its complexity. This notion that Vivian wouldn't have wanted her work to be seen and that she was private, and that included her art, that she was creating art for art's sake, and that she was somehow too pure to have her work seen by the world, I think that that's overstating it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Another challenge has now arisen with a recent lawsuit filed in Chicago calling the ownership of these photos and Maloof's right to show or profit from them into question, while the claims of a potential legal heir to the Maier estate are being looked into. That could keep the public from seeing the fuller archive for years.

  • JOHN MALOOF:

    Is there a chance? Sure.

    Where we're at right now with this is, we're negotiating a proposal with Cook County. I'm optimistic that we're going to work something out.

  • CHARLIE SISKEL:

    I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that it would be a tragedy if Vivian Maier's work were withdrawn from view, if the public were to lose out, so that a handful of lawyers win.

    It is a bit tragic that Vivian didn't get to experience the acclaim and the notoriety that she is receiving now, but ultimately the story is not a tragic one. It has a redemptive ending. And that's because her work has been discovered and shared, and millions of people around the world are seeing it, learning from her work and her story what it is to be a true artist.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Charlie Siskel and John Maloof, thank you both very much.

  • JOHN MALOOF:

    Thank you.

  • CHARLIE SISKEL:

    Thanks for having us.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest