From the 2014 Edinburgh Film Festival, we talk to Charlie Siskel, co-director of Finding Vivian Maier.
Screen Robot talks to Charlie Siskel, co-director of Finding Vivian Maier, about the life and the work of the enigmatic street photographer.
“I remember reading about the story – there were first a couple of pieces in Chicago Magazine, or maybe it was the Chicago Tribune,” Charlie tells me. “That would have been the first time I was exposed to it, but I didn’t immediately think, ‘I’m going to spend the next four years of my life working on this.'” The story is that of Vivian Maier, a woman who worked as a nanny and carer for much of her adult life, but who was posthumously revealed to be a talented and hugely prolific street photographer.
Siskel’s co-director John Maloof has spent the last few years tirelessly cataloguing and exhibiting Vivian Maier’s work
In 2007, a man named John Maloof bought 30,000 of Maier’s prints at an auction, hoping to use them in a book about a Chicago neighbourhood that he was writing at the time. While he didn’t use them for that project, the prints began something of an odyssey for Maloof, who has spent the last few years tirelessly cataloguing and exhibiting Maier’s work. Maloof’s efforts to give Maier the recognition that she didn’t get during her life form the basis of a new documentary which he co-directed with Charlie Siskel, Finding Vivian Maier.
Siskel recalls his involvement in the project coming via Jeff Garlin – best known as Larry David’s manager in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and something of a ‘photography buff’ according to Siskel – who got in touch with Maloof after hearing about Vivian’s story. It turned out that John was already in the initial stages of putting together a documentary about Vivian and her work, and had even started reaching out to subjects for interviews. However, Maloof told Garlin that what he really needed help with was the nuts and bolts of crafting a documentary narrative, which is where Siskel, who was known to Garlin through comedy circles as well as being a fellow Chicagoan, was picked out to join the project.
It’s apt that it should be a comedy connection that drew Siskel to the movie, as his comedic sensibilities certainly shine through in the final product. The opening sequence of the film quickly cuts between various different reactions to questions about Vivian from the interview subjects who appear throughout its running time. There’s something undeniably comic about the way the scene is cut, and it’s emblematic of the sense of humour that persists throughout the film, clearly something that Siskel was keen to add to the piece.
“I’m not interested in making serious documentaries that no one sees – although, I would be happy to make a serious documentary that many people see,” Siskel responds to my question about the place of humour in a documentary with the serious side that Finding Vivian Maier possesses. “I think it’s about heady topics; what it means to be an artist, what the life of an artist is like, what it means to be an artist that doesn’t show their work in their lifetime,” he goes on. “It’s very serious in a way, but Vivian also had a sense of humour. She was very funny, very playful; for all of the mystery that she cultivated – and she did – she was also very playful about it.”
The humour in Vivian’s work comes from something almost primal – it might be the way that she constructs a scene, or it might just be a facial expression worn by one of her subjects, but it consistently appeals on such a fundamental level that it’s difficult to imagine anyone failing to see what the joke is. It’s this same sense of humour that Siskel and Maloof employ throughout the film, and it lends a zest that most documentaries can’t claim to have, as well as acting as a fitting tribute to the woman herself. “Not to get Freudian or anything, but jokes often contain an element of seriousness and an underpinning of pathos,” Siskel says with a wry smile. “So when she jokes that she’s a spy, maybe there is some truth in that? Maybe she is a kind of spy? Maybe being a photographer is a kind of spying?”
“In a day and age where people overshare, I recognise that there’s something refreshing about someone who doesn’t”
The film certainly understands what makes Vivian’s work so compelling and there’s a sense of eagerness to share that with its audience, but there’s an argument to be made that might go against the artist’s wishes. By all accounts, she was a very private person that probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the sort of spotlight her work is enjoying at the moment, and may or may not have wanted her work to be shared at all. This is a topic that is covered at length in the movie, and it’s something that Siskel has very strong feelings about.
“I think that a lot has been made of that fact that Vivian did not share her work during her lifetime,” he tells me. “In a day and age where people overshare – where they post pictures of their toenails freshly painted and every meal they eat online for everyone to see – I recognise that there’s something refreshing about someone who doesn’t overshare. But there’s a tendency to weave this into the story that Vivian was a private artist creating private art for herself only. I just think that that gets it wrong, and that’s some of the tension that’s at play in the film, to explore that. I think the reality is messier.”
Having seen the film, it’s not difficult to see things from Siskel’s point of view. Debate could go back and forth endlessly about what Vivian’s wishes might have been, but the fact is that her photographs have an immense cultural value and deserve to reach as many people as possible. However, John and Charlie are going one step further to ensure that Vivian’s influence is felt for years to come. Alongside Howard Greenberg, the pair have established the Vivian Maier Scholarship Fund at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s an institution that she herself cared quite a bit about – she frequented the film centre, that’s where she saw art house movies,” Charlie says of the thought process behind the scholarship. “Every year a female student will have some of the financial burden of attending school and developing their craft lifted because of Vivian’s legacy.”
“Every year a female student will some of have the financial burden of attending school and developing their craft lifted because of Vivian”
Vivian Maier’s legacy, which not so long ago could easily have been lost, will now live on thanks to the scholarship, the film and, of course, the preservation of her work itself. It’s the strength of that work, after all, that made the rest of this intriguing story possible. I asked Siskel if he had a particular favourite photograph taken by Vivian. “There are so many photographs that I love, but there’s one that I think is particularly powerful,” he replied. “It’s one of the last images of the film, taken in Central Park – what appears to be a father and two children walking along a path.
“There’s a puddle between Vivian and the family, and you see the sunlight hit it and the family are reflected in the puddle. It’s kind of a classic street photograph, it’s Vivian capturing a moment. It just seems particularly poignant because it’s a family, and Vivian, by all accounts, seems to have had a troubled family life herself from what we’ve gathered and, again, it just reminds me of how complex the relationship is between Vivian as an employee living with families. It’s a beautiful image.”
Finding Vivian Maier will begin its UK release on July 18th.
Featured image: Sundance Selects
Inset images: chicagogeek (via Flickr); Sundance Selects