The film skillfully tackles the controversy of posthumously curating and selling an artist’s work without their explicit permission. Because Maier never lived to see her work in museums and galleries, the film’s interviews were often concerned with the ethics involved in publishing her work. The film does a good job of laying out the reasoning behind why Maloof decided to go through with printing and publishing her work, as it pays tribute to her as an artist and does not try to reshape her content. The exhibits were simple and the prints were orderly and uniform, letting the photographs speak for themselves.
After discovering thousands of negatives and rolls of undeveloped film at an auction, filmmaker John Maloof started on a quest to track down this mysterious woman, only to discover that she had recently died. Maloof’s journey to uncover Maier’s past is framed by interviews with past families who employed the photographer as a nanny.
The film’s primary focus on Maier’s work is the key to its success. Although the journey of unveiling Maier’s past is not as compelling as the photos themselves, the film skillfully balances the footage of the process, the interviews, and her photographs. If the film had focused too heavily on Maloof’s meticulous efforts to find out every detail about this mysterious woman’s life, the film would have suffered. At a time when street photography is as present as it was in the fifties, Maloof’s biggest achievement with this film was bringing Maier’s work to an eager audience.
One of Maloof’s main concerns in the film is tackling the question of why Maier took so many photos and never printed or shared any of them. Though this is an interesting question, the more compelling focus of the film is the exploration of the photos themselves. If there’s one thing any viewer can gather from the film, it’s that Maier was an exemplary photographer and understood the portrait inside and out. While the film depicts Maier as a bit of a recluse who got along with only the children she nannied, it is evident from her photographs that she understood and sympathized with people. Maier beats Humans of New York by a long shot when it comes to the art of street portraiture, and she could easily compete with her contemporaries like Robert Frank, who made portraiture his career.
Equally as impressive as her life’s work is the high quality of the photographs. For a nanny who appeared to have no formal training in photography, Maier’s technique was flawless. Her photographs capture her subjects with impeccable composition and beautiful lighting. Though the documentary shows only a fraction of her work, it’s clear that Maloof had uncovered a great artist when he came across the first suitcase of negatives.