Film: Chicago Street Photographer Vivian Maier Rocks Theaters

Maier was self-taught, but her work is now compared to artists such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. A new documentary attempts to piece together the life of this evasive woman and her powerful photos.

Via the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" John Maloof discovered the work of the nanny and artist in a box of negatives he purchased back in 2007. To date, he has produced two books on the mysterious street photographer Vivian Maeir and now this documentary film co-directed with Charlie Siskel. 

Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier, a nanny with an ever-present camera “always around her neck,” is now an art world cause célèbre with a wicked back story. John Maloof bought a box of negatives at an auction for $380 in 2007 and let it sit for over a year before cracking the seal to find an amazing cache of Chicago street scenes, portraits – life in the lens – by an unknown. 

Today, Maloof has appointed himself the guardian and custodian of Vivian Maier's archive. He's written two books about her, has an endowment in the works, and now the box office is humming with an 83-minute documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-directed with Charlie Siskel, about the journey to solve the puzzle of this unlikely photojournalist. 

What made her work stand out, great even? “It’s really hard to pinpoint because she took photos of so many things in different places. Different kinds of content,” Maloof told Madeline Brand of KCRW's Press Play. “She could capture a moment that was seemingly, like, staged and real. And it’s captured in 1/250th of a second.” 

But who was she? “I found an address on one of her things,” says Maloof. “I got a phone number and called them and told them I had her things and asked if they had any idea who was Vivian Maier." Oh, that was our nanny, came the nonchalant response. 

She never told these families anything about herself and Maier used aliases and altered details of her persona from gig to gig, sustaining a fortress of secrecy bordering on paranoia. “Her whole life was documenting other people,” said Maloof. And he's put her life, the stitched together version, on display here. And yet, there remains something crucial about Maier that's out of reach for the directors. A challenge to scrutinize and reconcile elements both unsettling and alienating. (There's a hint of Maier's mental instability.)

“Vivian Maier’s photography is absolutely incredible and now that it’s been unearthed and her past has been investigated, her talent should be appreciated,” wrote Brian Tallerico in a review of the film for Roger Ebert.comBut he admits being torn about it, feeling that the filmmakers, though well-intentioned, gloss over the touchy elephant issue of Maier’s privacy and the whole thing feels invasive to him. Maloof agrees. The woman who guarded her affairs with a ferocious tenacity would have been horrified at the very idea of this film. 

The work of this reluctant, posthumous star is worth a look.   

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