Phil Donahue on 'Finding Vivian Maier': "A Genius Was Living in Our Spare Bedroom" (Guest Column)

Finding Vivian Maier TIFF Still - H 2013
Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection

Phil Donahue hosted the syndicated talk show, Donahue, for 29 years. He now lives in New York with his wife, Marlo Thomas.

Vivian Maier was hiding a secret. I met her in a Chicago diner in the late '70s and hired her. She was our nanny. Decades later, over 150,000 photographs were discovered in storage lockers, the work of a brilliant but unknown artist. That secret genius was Vivian, our nanny, now considered one of the great photographers of the 20th century. The Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier tells this story, and not only is it a great film, it is a film that will be watched for years to come.

The New York Times got it right: "An exciting electric current of discovery runs through Finding Vivian Maier." If you haven't experienced this discovery for yourself, you must. The film is the work of filmmaker Charlie Siskel (Gene Siskel's nephew) and John Maloof, who purchased Maier's negatives and made it his life's work to share them with the world. I think it has much to teach us: about how important artists are to society, about the sacrifice it takes to be an artist and about how many great artists may be laboring anonymously right under our noses.

Like other families in the film, I hired Vivian to take care of my kids. We were her employers, not her confidants, benefactors or friends. We didn't ask many questions. We didn't ask the right questions. And so we didn't realize a genius was living in our spare bedroom.

Read more Finding Vivian Maier: Toronto Review

Maier spent a half-century documenting urban life. She was interested in the fringes of society and photographed the poor and the forgotten, exploring social injustice with humanity, fearlessness, skill and beauty. The film makes the compelling case that Maier and her historical archive of pictures belong in the canon of American photography.

Maier's story also illustrates the heroic life of a true artist. Why was her work never seen during her lifetime? She was a private person by all accounts, but, as the film shows, faced barriers as a woman, grappled with working-class struggles and likely feared rejection by the commercial art world. These factors, the film suggests, likely prevented Maier from becoming a professional photographer, rather than some noble desire to remain unknown.

I remember Vivian taking a picture of the inside of a garbage can. I thought, "they laughed at Picasso." But I didn't ask Vivian how I could help her try to become a Picasso herself. She never offered to show her pictures, but like most of her employers, I never asked either. Had I seen her work, I hope I would have been generous enough to say, "Vivian, you might have something here. Can I help you get an agent?" Here she was, living with someone who could have helped her — what are the chances of that? — and it still didn't happen. That opportunity never came.

Ultimately, Finding Vivian Maier shows how one of our great artists was saved from obscurity. Nearly lost, but in the end, found. Vivian Maier wasn't celebrated as an artist during her lifetime, but she will be celebrated now. We recognize her for who she truly was: a brilliant artist hiding out as a nanny. Our nanny.

Twitter: @Phil_Donahue
Twitter: @ScottFeinberg