In the last few months, by complete coincidence, I've watched three films about about street photography. The first was EVERYBODY STREET, which covered many of the great New York practitioners of this art form, save one major figure. The second was IN NO GREAT HURRY, a profile of that one major figure, Saul Leiter; and the third is beginning to open around the country and might be the most fascinating, in only because of the story of how this artist was discovered.
The film is called FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, and it concerns a major photographer, working since the 1950s, whose work was only recently discovered just days after her death in 2007, when John Maloof won the contents of Maier's Chicago storage locker via auction, only to find 100,000-plus prints, negatives, undeveloped rolls of films, audio tapes and film stock belong to the late woman, who many families in Chicago and other cities new as their children's nanny with the French accent.
A couple years into the archiving and uncovering process, Maloof decided to document his organizational process and talk to those who admire Maier's work, including co-director Charlie Siskel (a well-respected doc producer) and executive producer Jeff Garlin, best known as a comic actor and master of improv, who loved the work and just wanted to make sure that Maloof and Siskel made an entertaining film. FINDING VIVIAN MAIER is, of course, a catalog of some of Maier's finest work, but a magnificent detective story that finds Maloof going all over the work to find out who this unsung (during her lifetime) artist really was and what pushed her to take tens of thousands of images over the course of so many decades. The end result is a portrait of a lonely, possibly mentally disturbed woman, as well as an artist with true talent for captured the essence of her subjects, framing and composition; and it's truly fascinating stuff.
I sat down to chat with Maloof and Garlin earlier this week to talk about FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, and what they both discovered about the process of declaring art great when the artist dies prior to selling any prints, and with so many canisters of film undeveloped. Or maybe these major art institutions are just angry that they didn't find her first. Either way, the film and the detailed process of finding out who Vivian Maier truly is a great ride. Please enjoy my chat with Jeff Garlin and Jeff Maloof…
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you? Good to see you again.
Jeff Garlin: Great to see you again!
Capone: How are you, John?
John Maloof: Good. Nice to meet you.
JG: I like when I see you.
Capone: I like when I see you too.
JG: You know what I mean.
Capone: I appreciate that very much. And you sent me a very nice email after we did those Q&As at the Music Box last year.
JG: I was explaining to [co-director] Charlie Siskel actually, because I answered questions, and I’m going to do that this weekend for this film. But I said I think the only time that I’ve ever been involved with any Q&A that I’ve actually enjoyed myself, and the person did a great job, was with you.
JM: So you were the one who did the Q&A at the Music Box of your movie?
JG: Yeah, he moderated the Q&A afterwards.
JM: I was there.
JG: You were there, yeah!
Capone: We did a couple that weekend.
JG: Yeah, we did.
Capone: John, you made this discovery in 2007. At what point, did you think, “I need to start, not just organizing, but chronicling the organization,” because that’s a whole different level of commitment.
JM: When I started to make the film was when I started to realize everything needed to be understood from the viewers perspective, what’s going on.
Capone: How soon after the purchase did that happen?
JM: The spark to make the film was 2009, so two years. The film took four years. So, some of the things in the film were not in chronological order, like when I’m scanning it her prints. We say my story is when I’m interviewed, "I started to scan her work." But that was me scanning later than the initial time. The shot of me at the auction house was not when I was buying the box.
Capone: I’d imagine. That would have been some amazing foresight if it were from that auction.
JM: Yeah. So, just making sure you know. Some people were like, “There’s no possibility that could be real. He wouldn’t know that he was making a film.” Well obviously it’s b-roll. It’s to illustrate the story better. But I was actually buying some light stands. I was actually bidding.
Capone: How long had you been going after stuff in storage lockers up to that point?
JM: I wasn’t really ever a storage locker auction buyer, but my brother was, and he had a thrift store in Chicago, and he would get a lot of stuff from storage lockers. So I would go to him and bid, and we’d clean up. But he did flea markets forever. We have different fathers. My father and his father did flea markets. My grandfather did flea markets on Maxwell Street. And so then when I got my license, I had this 1974 four-door Malibu, and I tore the back seats out, and I just used that as my flea market car where I would buy and sell stuff. And I would drive that to the flea market when I was 18 and I did flea markets. So I knew when I saw something of value.
Capone: When those initial postings of the 200 photos was it?
JM: Roughly. On the website, yeah.
Capone: When they started to get the kind of reaction that they did, did you at some point give yourself a crash course in street photography?
JM: That was before that.
Capone: Tll me about that process. What did you focus on, and why did you think that was necessary?
JM: Because her work inspired me. I was not a photographer, but her work inspired me to become a photographer before I was even online, before anybody knew anything about her. I was not a photographer. I didn’t know this was that good. So, seeing her work, I started taking photos and learning about photography. But, when I was looking at her photos, it was just like Chicago streetscapes, like a cab on State Street with all the theaters lit up. That was to me a cool-looking photo you’d see in an office. But for me, it wasn’t like, "I know this is good or not." I was looking at all of the people in her shots. So, I learned about street photography and I started to learn more, and doing my own practice, scanning her work back and forth, then I realized I’m overlooking the most important part of her work. And that’s when I started to really dive into that specific genre of it.
Capone: The film is not just a story about Vivian Maier; it’s a story about your process of piecing her life together. It’s as much an investigative piece as it is a personal profile of somebody. Did Charlie Siskel help you strike a balance of the two?
JM: Oh yeah, we all did. Charlie was very crucial in the areas that I was not experienced in, which was really doing a narrative arc on a documentary with two story lines. So, we both put our heads together on this, and we knew the story we wanted to tell, but Charlie had a lot of experience making films with this similar structure. One follows my detective journey to figure out who she was as a person with interviews. Another one is her work becoming famous over time, and the institutions reaction to her work. Weaving that through was difficult.
Capone: So that’s what you leaned on him to do, the weaving part.
JM: Yeah, he’s extremely smart with it, and we had minor disagreements, but most of the time, we were on the same page.
Capone: Jeff, at what point did you become involved?
JG: Last week.
Capone: "Just put my name on it."
JG: I just said, “Just put my name on it, fellas. It can’t hurt. That was my selling point, "It can’t hurt.” That was what I said.
Capone: That’s a strong endorsement.
JG: No, I saw it on television here in Chicago, a little piece on [Vivian Maier's work], and at that time was also the show at the Chicago Cultural Center, and I was able to go see the work.
JM: Yeah, that was a while ago.
JG: And I contacted him and said, “This would be a great documentary. What do you think?” And he said, “I’ve been trying.” And through my encouragement, he had thought about this, and I let him know that this is a must. That he should direct it. That I would produce it. That I would stay out of his way, and I kept my word. I brought Charlie in to produce it, be an everyday producer. And Charlie and John had forged a bond on it, and Charlie was essential to it. Then ultimately, I got it seen by the right people--not necessarily the film initially but a trailer which led to it now being in theaters. And I did stay out of the way. I was the person that I would want to look after me. That’s what I did.
JM: He really did. I was not sure about a lot of things, and Jeff was like, “No, no. You need to do it this way.” I really needed somebody to tell me what I should do to go down this road, and now I’m like, "I'm going to go down the director road now and see where that goes," and that helped me. Charlie was great because we immediately hit the ground running on the same path, and we knew we wanted to tell the story a certain way right off the bat. We talked a lot everyday, sending dailies and info and photos and leads. So, naturally he became co-director.
JG: I wanted somebody to produce it who had Chicago ties that knew what they were doing. Michael Moore is a close friend of mine, and I had known Charlie--he had worked with my wife on a project, not a documentary--and I said to Michael, “What do you think about him producing this documentary?” And Michael was adamant, “Yeah, great.” And so the three of us went to dinner, and then before you know, it’s a whole thing. But I’m the benefactor. Is that the right word, if I help you?
JM: No, that’s a person who gets everything from the other person, right?
JG: You’re my benefactor?
JM: Technically yes.
Capone: John is your beneficiary?
JM: Oh, right. That’s what that means. I would be the beneficiary, and you would be the benefactor.
JG: You were the beneficiary of my benefactness.
JM: So true.
JG: And I couldn’t be more proud and more happy. And what’s wonderful is, this hasn’t been mentioned before, and you’re the perfect person to mention it to: the people who you were dealing with early on, talking to about directing, producing, all the people that you were going to all had something to gain. There was so much, whether it be money, whatever it was, there was something there. Me, I’m a successful comedian. I’m on TV, I’m in movies, I’m fine. I don’t need anything from this, except for getting Vivian’s work out there, and ultimately protecting you and helping you make something that I knew would be great, and that is great.
JM: I’ll be honest with you, because he said this to me exactly how he said it to you, when we first talked, and I was like, “This just seems a little too good to be true.” And after a while, I talked to him and was like, “He’s not bullshitting me. This is like really how he feels.”
JG: I’m proud of that. I’m really proud of what I brought to it. But having not creatively made the decisions, I love being able to just go off on how much I love the movie, and how great the movie is.
Capone: Was this story important for you because it did ultimately rise up out of Chicago?
JG: That makes it interesting, but even if it rose up out of St. Louis, I’d still find it interesting. But, it definitely is more interesting that it's in Chicago. I love that it’s Chicago.
Capone: A great deal is made in the film about Maier's place in art history now, or lack of place at this point. If people are coming out to see it in the numbers that we saw at the Cultural Center, and if the prints are selling, why is her place in the establishment so important?
JM: This is not going to be forever. The film is going to be around forever, but the legacy of her in history books in the future for other people to learn about is really dictated by institutions. When they say, “This is an important artist because of this, and this is their place in history,” people learn about it, and it becomes a cultural norm in history books that this is the artist that did so-and-so and is from Chicago, and this is their history about their life. So I think that is why it’s important. Not necessarily any more for what I needed them for orginally, which is money and staff, which I ended up having to plow through on my own for years. That is not what I need them for anymore. I need them to look at the work and assess it. And even beyond that would be great, but that’s what I want them to do.
Capone: A couple of times in the film you make a big deal about how a lot of the art institutions told you, “We’re not interested because she didn’t print them herself.” Do you think there’s something else there, though? She was this destitute woman, and all this stuff was in a storage locker. Is there something that they think it’s too low-brow about who took these photos?
JM: No, I don’t think so.
JG: I think on a lot of levels, I think it’s two things. They would have liked to discover it or someone in their world. John is an outsider. And just, I think truly when it comes down to it the word to me is arrogance. That's what it is. There’s an arrogance. Any art form, someone comes out of nowhere, whether they’re long dead or they’re 20-years-old--even worse probably when they’re young. There’s always resistance. I personally think that--forget the movie, forget everything--the work is so good that [this resistance] is a temporary thing. Someone somewhere of legitimacy, strong legitimacy, is going to embrace it. And that person should be respected, because they’re going to go against the norm of their peers. It’s going to take someone with an open mind.
Capone: B sheer coincidence, the Siskel Center has played a couple of documentaries in the last few months about street photography.
Capone: Mostly those out of New York.
JM: Was it EVERYBODY STREET?
Capone: EVERYBODY STREET was one.
JM: I’ve been wanting to see that.
Capone: It was really good. And then there’s another one called IN NO GREAT HURRY, about Saul Leiter.
JG: Saul Leiter. I was just on the internet the other day trying to find it. It’s not for sale in America yet.
JM: It’s at just about every film festival I’ve been at and I still haven't seen it.
Capone: I didn’t even think about it actually.
JG: I love his work.
Capone: My point is, I saw those films. I saw what supposedly the cream of the crop is, and her stuff is right in line with that.
JG: Most definitely.
Capone: That’s where you're right, it is a weird arrogance.
JG: It’ll change. It’s one of those things with time, it’ll change. It has to change. She’s so good, she can’t be denied. And though history that’s happened.
Capone: As you got to piece together and became a little more familiar with some of these stories--and there are some pretty awful things being said about her and some very nice things being said about her--did the photos make more or less sense as you got to know her as a person?
JM: I think it made more sense the more you know about her. Why is that nanny taking photos of men in an alley with a flash at night, the drunk men? That just seems nuts for a woman in her 20s to go and do in New York. But then you realize, wow, this is a strong woman. She'd probably kicked their ass. So, when you learn more about her, it just made more sense. She was very inquisitive about that stuff too.
Capone: The sequence you have about her following in the footsteps of a recent murder victim, and not so much trying to uncover something; she's just going where this other woman had been a few days before, when she was still alive. That’s something else. That reveals something about her. Not just wanting to be a distant chronicler, but someone who’s actively tracing death.
JG: It just makes for eccentricities. You’re looking at somebody who was clearly an artist, clearly a documentarian in her work, and it was purely about doing the work. There was nothing more to it than that. And then as she got older, she got a little bit insane, and that led to where it all led to. It was all logical steps along the way, to me.
JM: Yeah, she became worse of a hoarder, and I think that her photography at that point was not necessarily as classical as the stuff that she was doing in the '50s and '60s, but it was more like, “Oh look, a piece of graffiti. That's something that I want to document.” Or garbage in a garbage can, or just little memories or snippets that she has to save became a by-product of her compulsion and obsession.
Capone: I read somewhere where you said as you were going though the negatives and making the contact sheets, you realized that she very rarely took more than one photo of any given subject.
JM: Rarely, yes.
Capone: That’s insane.
JM: Yes it is.
Capone: And I don’t mean that clinically, I just mean that’s someone who’s very confident in that first image.
JG: I think that’s a key word, by the way. "Confident." Because that’s why people say that you become a better photographer if you start out with film, because there’s a lot more thought that goes into it and you know that every shot you’re taking is costing you money, as opposed to digital when you can take 40 shots of the same thing, and it doesn't cost you anything except for a card after awhile.
JM: A card you can throw 1,000 photos on a card.
JG: Yeah. But the word is confident.
JM: But also frugal.
JG: Frugal. By the way, that may be the whole thing, maybe she was frugal and not confident. More like, "I really got to move on."
JM: "I don't have enough money to do more than one shot. It better be good."
Capone: I was thinking a lot about her choice to be a nanny, and as much as whatever she may or may not have felt about children, it also gave her an excuse to spend the whole day outside. One of the former children under her care said something about her always thinking that children should be outside, but maybe it was more about her going outside to take pictures.
JM: Oh, yeah. Going on adventures. I think it was both. I think she wanted to culture the kids, to show these really wealthy kids that would not see the slums or the way that the people on the lower end of society really lived. I think one time she was coming home on the train with the children, which they probably would never take, and they saw the clothes hanging on the clothes line, and they were like, “What is going on with this is clothes on this clothes line?” And she was like, “Well, that’s where people that don’t have as much money as you dry their clothes.” And they were just completely like, “What?” She took them to the stockyards in the film because she wanted them to see where their food comes from. So she wanted to culture them, but at the same time she was inquisitive and wanted to go on adventures. She would take Chicago River cruises toexplore the Calumet River with her camera, without the kids too sometimes.
Capone: You mentioned the stockyards, I believe it was that woman that you interviewed towards the end who had the most horrible stories about Vivian's behavior, some involving that trip to the stockyards. I got a weird vibe off of her.
JM: You’re not alone.
Capone:I feel like I’m reading between the lines here, but you included so much of her just going and going, and you realize that there's something weird about this.
JM: It sucked because we didn’t know how much of it was exaggerated or not, but we though obviously, if you look at the footage of her walking with a red coat after Vivian shows her the dead sheep, it cuts to her walking with a red coat to her sheep in the present day. We thought this is somebody who is heavily influenced by Vivian.
JG: I remember you telling me about her on the phone.
JM: I was so blown away. I was like, “She's got sheep? You know that story about the sheep? She still has them. Oh my god. This is crazy.” When we finally got to her, we didn’t expect the stories. But we thought this is important just as a character study of somebody who shaped her, and who Vivian shaped. She’s talking, let’s let them talk to the viewer, but we’re not saying anything.
JG: What’s good about that is it lets the viewer decide, as opposed to saying, “This is what Vivian did," we're saying "This is what this person is saying that she did.”
JM: Right. Or, this is not what the directors are saying Vivian did.
Capone: Has this film changed yet? And if not, what are you hoping it will change in terms of her legacy and her work being shown?
JM: Well, the film comes out now, so we’ll see. I don’t think many people that would be the movers and shakers would have seen it yet, but maybe. I hope that it will definitely make those people think about her work more and maybe talk about it. Maybe somebody official in the institutional chain of command will say, “This work is great. It should be written about. Critics should write more about it. Let’s research it and include it into the history. Let’s do a show, let’s aquire it.” I don’t know. But anything is open. I have no idea where it’s going to go.
Capone: Jeff, what would you like to see happen as a result of this film?
JG: That people are entertained. That they really enjoy it. That's all I care about. I care about John getting whatever he wants, but I have no agenda. Here’s my agenda: My agenda’s over. My agenda is I helped some guys make a great movie. Done with me. I’m all good. There’s a great movie that I helped. Done. So, I have no hopes besides that. I have no hopes for how much it makes, who sees it, what sees it. I’d like museum shows and all that, but I helped put a good movie on the planet. I’m good.