It’s no wonder that “paradoxical” is the first word uttered in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier to describe its elusive and mysterious subject. Vivian Maier made her living as a nanny for upper-middle-class families in Chicago and New York during the last half of the twentieth century. Through a series of lucky accidents — along with the relentless detective work of an amateur historian named John Maloof, who also co-directed the film — we now know that Maier was secretly one of the century’s great artists, a street photographer whose remarkable work deserves a place in our finest museums alongside that of Robert Frank or Walker Evans. But Maier never showed her work publicly, and even those who thought they knew her assumed her to be a mere hobbyist with the camera. Why did her life’s work remain a secret until after her death? And who was Vivian Maier, anyway?
Finding Vivian Maier seeks to shed much-needed light on these burning questions, and co-director Maloof is the ideal person for the task. Looking for some archival photos to illustrate a book he was writing about local Chicago history in 2007, Maloof went to an auction and purchased a trove of old photographs removed from a self-storage facility for unpaid bills. The images didn’t suit his current project, but Maloof sensed he’d found something special even though he had no background in photography or visual art. An address on an old envelope later led to him to locals who had known Maier (mostly because they had hired her to watch their kids) and to another huge trove of materials that was about to be put in a dumpster. In addition to his prints, Maloof soon had 100,000 negatives, 150 homemade movies, and almost 3000 rolls of undeveloped film. Amazingly, Maier had never seen much of her own work.
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Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel (who’s best known as a producer of documentaries like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Bill Maher’s Religulous) devote much of their sturdy film to recounting Maloof’s personal quest to solve the multiple mysteries of Maier’s life. They interviewed more than 100 people, ranging from artists who admire her work to the now grown-up kids she raised for absent parents. The triumph of discovering and presenting Maier’s work to the world gives way to a final third of the film that dwells too long on the dark side of her character. This was fresh territory for the filmmakers to mine, but some of this material would be better suited to an exhaustive published biography. A 30-second montage of photos Maier took on an eight-month world tour only hints at a large subset of her work that deserved unrushed treatment in the film.
Finding Vivian Maier finds its true calling in advocating for Maier’s body of work, which predictably has not yet found full acceptance in the rarified world of fine art. But Maier’s art is the kind that requires no formal training to understand or appreciate — she captured the people and places of her time with extraordinary depth, humor, and insight. The chance to see her photographs projected on the big screen alone is reason enough to see the film.
Finding Vivian Maier will screen on Saturday, April 5 at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday, April 8 at 5:00 p..m. at the Prytania Theatre as part of the filmOrama featival.