Friday, February 24, 2017

Vivian Maier - Through Death Her Photographs are Brought to Life: An Analysis of the Documentary, Finding Vivian Maier


The name Vivian Maier is unfamiliar to most; however, due in large to the production of the film, Finding Vivian Maier, one now associates this name with one of the most notable street photographers of the 20th century. Finding Vivian Maier is a critically acclaimed mystery documentary about a nanny who took over 100,000 secret photographs in New York and Chicago. This documentary reveals Miss Maier’s strange and secretive life of photography through an incredible number of photographs and films. In 2007, Maier’s expansive body of work was brought to light after director, John Maloof, stumbled upon a box of undeveloped film at a Chicago auction house. From this single box, Maloof embarked on a journey of discovery; and with each step, uncovered hidden aspects of Maier’s secret life and work from the archive she left and from the few people who knew her ‘best’. Maloof’s penetrating documentary creates awareness and appreciation for the value and preservation of Maier’s work. The documentary provides compelling arguments as it analyzes the context, audience, purpose, and point of view of Maier’s work. Additionally, Maloof is skillful in balancing ethos, pathos, and logos appeals, thus making his documentary a masterful film in its own right.
The film is initially shrouded in an air of mystery. This sense of mystery is created in part by the documentarians decision to not mention Vivian Maier until later in the film. However, even after Vivian is initially mentioned, the audience is given little information as to who she is and her role in the film. Consistent with this tactic, the director’s motive for producing this film is to uncover and reveal the life of a talented woman who took thousands of photographs and films. John Maloof created his documentary with the intention of “putting Vivian in the history books” ¹  and sharing her art with the world, allowing everyone to appreciate it. Additionally, Maloof appeals directly to the audience, asking them to challenge art institutions to accept Vivian’s works posthumously.
In an attempt to raise awareness as to the cultural and artistic importance of Vivian’s works, Finding Vivian Maier targets a broad and artistically literate audience. Although the target audience is one who is more culturally aware, the discovery of Vivian Maier’s works has had such an impact that a significant percent of the general public is now fascinated with discovering  her story. The recent release of this documentary on Netflix has brought a resurgence in popularity. However, many remain unaware of this documentary because of Netflix’s screening process, in which it selects films based on an individual’s personal algorithm, therefore making it highly unlikely that Finding Vivian Maier would appear on the average person’s feed.

While attempting to uncover the mysterious life of one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers, this film employs both ethos and pathos through the use of firsthand accounts and interviews from the few people who knew Vivian Maier ‘best’, or at least those who thought they did. Vivian nannied in both Chicago and New York, working for many different families, most notably for talk show host, Phil Donahue. Although no longer as famous, Phil Donahue was widely known in the decades between the seventies and nineties. Phil Donahue’s appearance in the film grants a certain credibility with an older audience. Additionally, this film gains further legitimacy through its use of professional opinions from linguistic expert, Barry Wallis, street photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, and National Archives Genealogist, Michael Strauss. Although these expert opinions and interviews increase the film’s credibility, the uncovered audio recordings of Maier, in which she voices her own thoughts and opinions about her life and the then current era, heighten the ethos and pathos of this film as the audience learns about Vivian from Vivian herself. These audio recordings influence the audience on an emotional level as they share first-hand the joys and struggles of Vivian’s daily life. One such recording depicts Vivian joking with the children she nannied, allowing the audience to see that, in some aspects, Vivian did lead a normal life. On the other hand, Vivian made recordings concerning her take on politics and crime, adding an even broader emotional perspective to the documentary.

Although Maloof’s documentary does not have many statistics to support its claims, it does rely on some facts in establishing its logos appeal. After an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, the story of Vivian Maier took off around the world as key news sources including CBS, the Wall Street Journal, BBC, and Vogue wrote piece after piece, telling the story of Vivian Maier’s life and her discovered works. The documentary appeals to the viewer’s logic through the use of firsthand testimonies from those who knew Vivian during her life. This logos appeal provides the film with a balance between objectivity and creativity. The man who discovered Vivian Maier’s works, John Maloof, delivers the narration of this documentary. In addition to Maloof’s detailed narration, dozens of insightful testimonies from those connected to Vivian’s life, along with Vivian’s own recordings, provide the audience with information necessary to piece together her unique life.
Overall, I believe that Finding Vivian Maier deserves a rating of four nachos. Although this documentary is extremely compelling and raises awareness for Vivian Maier and her photography, I believe that its lack of concrete facts and statistics, may lower the film’s logos appeal and leave the film with less of an overall influence on the audience.


Works Cited 

¹ Finding Vivian Maier. Dir. John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Perf. John Maloof, Vivian Maier.

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