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Film Review: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’

Vivian Rothstein

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Photographer Vivian Maier spent her last months on a park bench overlooking Lake Michigan, her secret life boxed up in storage units around Chicago. Her tens of thousands of negatives, 16mm films and voice recordings (not to mention newspaper clippings, receipts, unopened IRS refunds, blouses and hats) could easily have disappeared into obscurity if it weren’t for a young real estate agent and amateur local historian, John Maloof, who has a penchant for auctions and flea markets.

If you enjoy photography and the unpredictability of human existence you’ll enjoy Maloof’s film, Finding Vivian Maier. The documentary describes an eclectic journey to unearth the life and motivations of an eccentric subject, an artist who never sought to have her pictures displayed or published.

Maier seemed to have trouble making close human connections, but with her camera she was uncanny in creating intimacy with the widely diverse life on the streets of Chicago and New York. A photographer friend who loved the film told me she’d feel constrained about snapping such intimate portraits as Maier’s without asking for permission; perhaps someone like Maier, with distant human relationships, didn’t perceive the intrusion. (Her Rolleiflex camera, with its waist-level viewfinder, also made Maier a less conspicuous photographer to her subjects.)

Born in New York City in 1926, Maier apparently worked much of her life as a housekeeper or live-in nanny for upper crust families, mostly on Chicago’s North Shore. She seemed to enjoy the children in her care, although a few dark stories of mistreatment emerge in the film. Walking the city with her young charges provided Maier with the perfect opportunity to snap candid shots of people who would hardly have noticed her. In a photo taken at the Chicago stockyards, one of those children was carrying a camera of her own, perhaps a Vivian Maier-in-training.

If Maier’s pictures weren’t extraordinary there wouldn’t have been much of a story. And if the life Maloof discovered had been less obscure, there might have been less human drama in the telling. But the combination of the art and the obscurity makes the story extremely compelling. Try to see this film.

(All still photos, above, by Vivian Maier.)

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