For decades, Vivian Maier lived an unassuming life as a nanny in middle class Chicago. But during all that time she was leading another life, taking thousands of incredible photographs of street life on the other side of the city.
Charlie Siskel is the co-director of Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary which tells this fascinating story. Talking to Jonathan Melville at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, he detailed the seemingly far-fetched synopsis of Maier’s life.
“She took over 150,000 photographs between the 1950s and early 2000s,” Siskel says. “She never shared those photographs with anyone, they were discovered in a storage locker where she kept them secret, and the work is now seen around the world. And as we show in the film, she is now being hailed as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.”
In order to capture the reality of urban life in all its colourful yet tawdry reality, Maier would sometimes have to blur the lines between her dual careers.
“Vivian would take the children she was caring for from the wealthy suburbs of Chicago down into the downtown parts of Chicago, skid-row, the rougher areas, and expose the kids to street life that they had never seen before, but where Vivian could take the photographs,” Siskel explains. “She was a street photographer and she was interested in showing the grittier side of life, the underbelly of society, people on the fringes. As a result, we have these incredible images, that really are a time capsule, showing us what life was like in the urban centre of Chicago, in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and beyond.”
According to Siskel, Maier’s talent is demonstrated in her extremely economic style, something he believes serves as a lesson to photographers in the digital age.
“I think in a day and age where we take billions of pictures, and delete them, and share them around, and take pictures of our food and take pictures of our feet and take picture of every sunset that we see, it is refreshing to look at photography the way it was practiced over a lifetime,” he says. “I think we as photographers, all amateur photographers, could learn something from Vivian. She had a great eye, she didn’t take a million exposures of any given subject. If you look at her contact sheets, often she would take a single shot of a subject and move on. She trained her eye and trained her sensibility to capture these great moments and iconic images. I think we could all learn a little something from that.”
Finding Vivian Maier is out in UK cinemas on July 18; find screenings.
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