“Finding Vivian Maier”: Ethics vs. Entitlement


Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned. If all events are seen, instantaneously, outside time, by a supernatural eye, the distinction between remembering and forgetting is transformed into an act of judgment, into the rendering of justice, whereby recognition is close to being remembered, and condemnation is close to being forgotten.” – Berger


“Finding Vivian Maier” is the story an impassioned flea-market frequenter striving to curate and share the work of an eccentric street photographer posing as a mid-century Mary Poppins, or so it seems. Initially intriguing, the documentary highlights the clouded existence of extraordinary art and an underappreciated artiste in modern day New York. However, as the biopic continues Maloof’s pervasive enquiries into the life of an evidently private person start to raise questions surrounding the legitimacy of his quest. As the credits roll we are left to ponder the ethics of posthumous publication and media based curation.

The question of Maier’s natural talent is not the contentious issue here. The quandary is that while her work is beautiful and provocative, a product of what could be the dying art of street photography as we know it, it was, prior to her death, a completely private collection, in every sense of the word (Coffee 93). The digitised and printed negatives on display in Maloof’s biopic were the components of an extensive hoard maintained by Maier throughout her life. With the exception of a brief reference to publication in a private letter Maier showed no indication of publicising her exhaustive collection. In fact, the documentary exemplifies and violates this sense of privacy as it details Maier’s efforts to maintain a very private persona.  If Maloof had made the argument that the negatives deserved publication, simply because of their artistic beauty and expression, or because, as Berger has argued above, they serve to remember and vindicate a past possibly forgotten, then perhaps one could find merit in that. However, this is sadly not the case. Maloof’s weak justification for publication leaves us open to the conclusion, that in this case at least, curiosity has been deemed sufficient reason for the invasion of privacy (Tallerico). This furthers the ethical debate as the curation community must ask itself if possessing data entitles us to use it, irrespective of motivation but simply out of integrity, and if pervasive biographical publications are a suitable form of cultivating human interest.


Ultimately, the ethical dilemma surrounding the work of Vivian Maier may never be known. In the absence of expressed wishes or legal documents we can only guess what the reclusive Maier would have wanted. While I can appreciate the artistic talent of Maier’s work and am grateful for the ability to view it, the probing and publication of the mysterious figure’s life seems to take the standard of permissible curiosity too far. Perhaps using artistic merit or Berger’s redemption we can justify posthumous publication to a reasonable degree. However, the exposition of a woman’s clearly private life can be deemed no more than selfish human curiosity, a fault to which we are all almost true to.




Berger, John, About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books (1980). Print.

Coffee, Kevin. “Misplaced: Ethics and the Photographs of Vivian Maier.” Museum Management and Curatorship 29.2 (2014): 93–101. Web.

Tallerico, Brian, RogerEbert.com. Web. Date accessed: 08 November 2016. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/finding-vivian-maier-2014