Published Mar 27, 2014You've probably never heard of Vivian Maier before, but that's okay, because Vivian Maier never wanted you to know about her.
An aspiring street photographer and live-in nanny from 1956 to the mid-2000s, Maier was a reclusive spinster who experienced life extemporaneously through a never ending series of self-shot portraits and landscapes. But it wasn't until a chance encounter in 2007 that any of her photos ever saw the light of day.
While researching for a book about the history of Chicago's Portage Park, Windy City native John Maloof stumbled upon a box of negatives at a local auction house. Desperate for an affordable set of slides from the 1950s, he bought the collection on a whim for roughly $380. What he found were reams of never before seen images that began to redefine the history of modern photography.
Told through a series of talking heads from the families that knew her best, as well as Maloof himself, who co-directs the feature alongside Charlie Siskel (producer of 2002's Bowling for Columbine), Finding Vivian Maier documents Maloof's unending efforts to unravel the mystery of the hermetic photojournalist while concurrently lobbying for her acceptance in the art world.
Described in vivid detail chronologically through the thousands of negatives, home movies, ticket stubs and audio interviews with herself and those around her, Maloof entices viewers with Maier's breathtaking oeuvre and secretive self-mythology. But it's in the film's second half where the story really picks up, as Maloof begins to unravel Maier's personal bouts with obsessive compulsion and further detachment from the world. It's these moments that prove particularly troubling when examined next to Maier's exceptional eye for photography, as people who were once under her care come forward with admissions of her frequent force-feedings, field trips to local abattoirs and alleged physical abuse to young children.
Credit is due to Maloof, who, as a first-time director, delivers a seemingly balanced portrayal of his findings, choosing to let his interview subjects do the talking while keeping the majority of his opinions to himself. However, it's worth noting that with few family members to speak of and sole ownership of the majority of her known images, Maloof is probably the one in the best position to benefit from her growing popularity, a fact that is mentioned, albeit briefly, in the film.
Still, for its portrayal of a photographer whose work could have amounted to nothing more than a brief wrinkle in time had it not been discovered, Finding Vivian Maier is a classic whodunit, and one that perfectly captures the finding of a lifetime.
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