Finding Vivian Meier - review
Directed by John Maloof
John Maloof’s documentary about Vivian Meier will restore your faith in artists who are compelled to paint, write, dance or sing — or in this case take photographs — without needing an arts grant to get them to work. Single all her life, Meier chose to become a nanny simply so she could roam city streets with her Rolleiflex box camera in daylight hours (often with children in tow) rather than work in a factory or office.
Born in 1926 in New York, she spent her childhood in France and worked for 40 years minding children, mainly in Chicago, all the while recording street scenes there and in New York and Los Angeles. Although she was an excellent photographer with an eye for the unusual, poignant and slightly absurd, reports on her abilities as a nanny are mixed.
Maloof, who narrates the film and who discovered 4000 of Meier’s unmarked negatives at a Chicago auction in 2007, interviews families who had employed her as a caregiver. Some obviously loved and respected her while a few mostly remember her brutality (including one who reported having her head bashed against a bookcase when she was five for being unable to tie her shoelaces).
All agreed that Meier was a little strange: she was a hoarder who insisted on having her bedroom door padlocked when she was out and collected such enormous piles of newspapers in one attic room that the floor began to sag.
She also occasionally took her young charges to Chicago’s rougher suburbs with little concern for their safety. In fact, she once gave them the slip and the police were astounded to learn that it wasn’t the children who had escaped from their nanny, as was more commonly the case.
The film depicts an elusive, mysterious woman, who sometimes spoke with a French accent, and went under a number of aliases. She was tall, severe looking, and dressed soberly. She was also intensely private, although she had no qualms about invading the privacy of others on her photographic forays, including capturing a road accident involving a child.
The appeal of many of her shots is their candidness, an effect no doubt aided by her using a Rolleiflex held at waist height which she could peer into without her subjects necessarily knowing they were being photographed. She captured everything from men in yellow walk shorts to women in furs, but mainly concentrated on people subsisting on the margins of society. In the final years of her life, she would join their ranks – a haughty, cantankerous bag lady.
Meier is now regarded in some circles as one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. This is an excellent introduction to her strange life and arresting work.