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Finding Vivian Maier

Posted by martinteller on June 2, 2014

John Maloof — a young real estate agent with an interest in local history — purchased a box of photographs at an auction, hoping to find material for a book he was putting together about a neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side.  He didn’t find anything useful, but the more he returned to the photographs, the more he recognized their beauty and immediacy.  He discovered that they were by someone named Vivian Maier, and began tracking down and buying the other boxes from the auction.  In all, he accumulated some 150,000 negatives, thousands of prints, reels upon reels of 8-millimeter film, boxes of audio cassettes, and heaps of letters, receipts, newspaper clippings and other hoarded memorabilia.  And yet Vivian Maier remained a mystery.  In making this film, he uncovers fascinating truths about a secretive and “eccentric” nanny with a rare gift for photography.  He also tries to bring her amazing work to the public, and struggles with whether or not Maier would have wanted that.

This is a really fabulous documentary.  Maloof (with directorial assistance from TV writer & producer Charlie Siskel) unravels Vivian Maier’s story in exquisite layers.  The film opens unceremoniously with shots of the interviewees — mostly the children she nannied and their families — sitting quietly.  Not only does this mimic the silent images of human faces that Maier captured, but it also sets the stage for how little people actually knew her, and how difficult it is to get to the real story.  By the end, although some dark secrets are revealed, there is still much unknown.  And yet, the missing pieces do not feel troublesome because the movie digs deeper and deeper in thoroughly satisfying stages.  The mystery that remains is not frustrating, but appropriate for someone who kept her cards so close to her chest.

And one feels that perhaps as Maloof digs through his voluminous Maier collection some more, he will find some more details, more pieces of the puzzle to be filled in.  Or someone else who knew Maier, perhaps knew another side of her, will see the film and come forward.  The movie has a wonderful sense of possibility to it, and the unanswered questions are inviting rather than confounding.  And what a documentarian’s dream, to simply stumble into a treasure trove of such intrigue, and such volume.

And such talent.  One of the delights of the film, besides its skillful handling of information and careful balance of humor and tragedy, is to see Maier’s photographs.  I know little about photography, but her images are bold and iconic… they had never been seen until a few years ago, but they look like classics ripped from gallery walls.  Her art deserves to be celebrated, and her fascinating life deserves to be examined.  And this film deserves to be seen, it’s beautifully put together.  Especially recommended for fans of similar docs about “outsider artists” like In the Realms of the Unreal (Maier’s story has certain Darger-esque qualities) or The Devil and Daniel Johnston.  Rating: Great (90)


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