Film Review: Finding Vivian Maier

Completely captivating doc about the most undiscovered of real artists, with a fascinatingly dark backstory as well.

Every forager—flea market aficionado, Ebay trawler, thrift shop devotee—dreams of finding that rare treasure, but John Maloof really hit the jackpot when he bought a box of photographic negatives at auction for $380. He discovered that they produced photos of singular quality—most of them street candids, all of them taken by an unknown woman named Vivian Maier. He acquired more of her work as well as her copious possessions, for she was an inveterate hoarder, and set about finding out who she was.

Maloof, with co-director Charlie Siskel, has turned his search into this most intriguing of documentaries, training his camera upon himself as well as some of the 100,000-plus images of Maier's work that he possesses. Without exception, they are exceptional, be they of scruffy Everymen on the street, homeless bums, glowing storefronts or, especially, quiet radiant shots of children, fully capturing their innocence. Why Maier obsessively took these pictures with her ever-present Rolleiflex, and why she never showed them to anyone else all her life, is a major mystery.

Also mysterious is the woman herself. Doggedly using telephone books and census reports, Maloof travels to places like Chicago and even a village in the French Alps to uncover her true identity. Maier was a nanny and maid for most of her life, and many of her employers, including a surprised Phil Donahue, are interviewed, revealing a highly secretive woman who compulsively collected newspapers with an especial bent toward violent and grotesque stories. She turned every one of her living spaces into an overstuffed hoarder's paradise.

Eminences like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark compare Maier to Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Lisette Model, but despite such accolades, the art establishment, according to Maloof, has been slow to truly recognize her worth—in light of its quality, a statement on the warped insularity of that world. The public, however, knows no such reservations, as the photos have by now been internationally exhibited to rapturous crowd acclaim. There's no denying a good amount of self-interest here, since Maloof happens to be the chief executor of her output. Happily, he's also an ingratiatingly curious geek with an inviting presence as he narrates his Maier-induced peregrinations: a kind of weird Mary Poppins, Maier dragged her young charges along with her on her photographic rounds of unseemly neighborhoods.

Smoothly shot and skillfully edited by Aaron Wickenden, the movie is a highly satisfactory detective story, which even possesses a dramatically dark denouement. I won't spoil it for the reader, but suffice it to say that certain unsettling images of kids proffer clear evidence of a highly disturbing side to Maier, with her weirdly Teutonic walk and, at times, overbearing nature. Despite this, those who knew her grant her not only her artistic talent, but also a certain admiration and real affection. However lonely and marginalized her life may have seemed, it is unquestionable that she lived it solely on her own terms, and her peripatetic livelihood made it possible for her to pursue her passion, bed and board taken care for by her employers. She figured out, early on, how to exist as an artist—if only for herself—something anyone trapped in a dreary nine-to-five might well envy.