‘Finding Vivian Maier’ Captures the Story of a Reclusive Photographer

Courtesy photo

How is it that the work of one of the greatest street photographers who ever lived went completely unnoticed in her lifetime? After watching Finding Vivian Maier the answer seems simple: She was a little nuts.  

First-time filmmaker John Maloof found Maier’s work accidentally. He bought a box at an auction that contained hundreds of her images. After purchasing other boxes of Maier’s belongings at subsequent auctions (and from other people), he became consumed and began piecing together her life story.  

She was American, though she told most people she was French. She worked as a nanny and a housekeeper, and many of Maier’s employers found her odd, secretive and some of the now-adult children she cared for say she was downright wicked.

For example, one charge who spent many years with Maier tells of horrific physical abuse. Another describes her as simply mean. Some people really loved her, though they all agree she was different (the multiple stories about saved newspapers makes one think of a hoarder). And Phil Donahue pops up (!) to detail Maier’s brief time in his employ. Sadly, he doesn’t remember much aside from some self-serving nuggets about being a single dad.  

In addition to being a caretaker, Maier was also a gifted photographer, with a staggering number of images in her portfolio. By the time Maloof is on the case, Maier has died, but her few friends and many employers give life to this fascinating person. There’s even a parallel to be drawn between the filmmaker and his subject. She was borderline obsessive in taking street photos; Maloof, from the beginning, seems obsessed, albeit benignly, with getting to the heart of Maier’s work and personal life. That includes a trip to Europe and sifting through thousands of images, cataloguing them and making them available to the public.  

The images themselves tell only part of the story, and it’s unfortunate Maier isn’t here to fill in the gaps. (Even if she was alive, she may have chosen not to participate, based on the interviews with the people who knew her.)  

In the end, Vivian Maier remains a mystery, but what a complex, confounding and fascinating mystery. Her work is stunning, and all the people who knew her—at least those depicted in Maloof’s film—opine about her reasons for being so uniquely driven.  

Ultimately, in terms of exhibiting her photos, it seems Maier may have been her own worst enemy. It’s hard to say given that all her reminiscences—and there are several—are limited to journal entries, film development orders and the occasional audiotape.

Another question worth asking: What would she have thought about this probe into her personal and professional life? There’s a hint of answer, but like most other questions in Finding Vivian Maier, it remains partially explored.  

Still, the pictures are dazzling—what an eye!—the mystery intriguing and the person riveting. Finding Vivian Maier is a solid tribute to an unknowable artist.

Finding Vivian Maier (NR)

Writ. and dir. John Maloof, Charlie Siskel; feat. Vivian Maier, John Maloof Mary Ellen Mark
★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Opens Fri, June 6 at Santikos Bijou