Oscar countdown continues: Finding Vivian Meier

Gold TrophyA few weeks ago, I pledged to see all Oscar-nominated movies (at least in the categories that I cared about) before February 22, when the winners will be announced. Since that promise, I’ve seen American Sniper, Two Days and One Night, and The Judge. And today in bed with a cold, I watched Finding Vivian Meier.

I had heard about the mysterious photographer a few years ago when I saw a short film about her as part of a rare visual performance by my favorite radio show, This American Life.

But Finding Vivian Meier is a full-length documentary that delves into the life of an artist and just goes to show that people are not always who they seem to be. Filmmaker John Maloof had to do some serious detective work and go through mountains of documents in order to put together a timeline for this reclusive woman. And by documents, I mean boxes and suitcases full of receipts, newspaper clippings, negatives, and undeveloped film. A hoarder, she also kept all manner of doodads that she picked up in pawn stores and dumpsters.

VM self portrait
One of Vivian Meier’s many self portraits

The padlock she kept on the door to her room hid away not only evidence of a life spent taking photographs but also stacks of newspapers that she always meant to read. It appears she never threw anything out. After her death in 2006, the contents of her storage locker were auctioned off in pieces, which is how John Maloof discovered that first box of negatives. After he saw what he had, he tracked down as much as he could of the rest of Vivian’s belongings. By this point, he not only wanted to print her photos and get them into public view, he was also curious what kind of person could take over 100,000 photos without sharing them with the world.

Vivian made her living primarily as a nanny, and the film features interviews with many of her now-grown charges as well as some of her employers. And although everyone agreed that she was an extremely private person who took photographs all the time, they had different perspectives based on what little Vivian revealed to each of them.

VM woman
One of Meier’s street photographs

For instance, some people were sure she was French, and one man thought she was either Austrian or from Alsace, but in reality, she was born in New York.

One woman claimed to be her friend but knew very little of her circumstances. Some of her charges had positive memories, but some of the stories they told about her as a nanny portrayed her as cruel. One woman illustrated for the camera her singular walking style, stomping loudly in what she called “army boots” and swinging her arms. Meier was called “eccentric,” “crazy,” “mean,” “very opinionated,” and “a nice lady.”

Perhaps depending on which persona she wanted to project, she alternately used variations of her name that included the more casual Viv to the formal Miss Meier, but when forced to leave a name at a shop where she wanted them to hold something for her, she left only the name V. Smith.

Recollections from a few who spent time with her point to a past of abuse, most likely at the hands of a man (or men), judging by her reactions to males and her warnings to little girls to stay clear of men because they only wanted them for sex.

But even with Maloof’s exhaustive research, we will never know exactly what shaped the secretive and enigmatic Miss Meier. She never married, had children, or sustained any lasting relationships, as far as anyone knew. Her only remaining living relative is a distant cousin who never met her.

VM contact sheet
one of her contact sheets

But her legacy is her body of work, which has prompted many in the art world to declare Meier one of the greatest street photographers of the twentieth century. Hers is a fascinating story told artfully in this documentary.

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