Brilliant documentary shines light on nearly-forgotten photographer
Brilliant documentary shines light on nearly-forgotten photographer

How much can you learn about a person’s life from the things they leave behind? This question is the driving force behind the fascinating documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” and in the process of finding an answer many new and more important questions begin to pop up.

It all begins with John Maloof, who co-directed the movie with Charlie Siskel. Looking for old photographs for a book he was writing, Maloof purchased a lot at an auction that contained several thousand negatives.

When he took the photos home and began to scan them into his computer he discovered remarkable artistic photographs. Not sure what to do with them he posted them online where they became a minor Internet sensation.

Maloof then decided to try to track down the photographer and learned that she was a deceased nanny named Vivian Maier.

The rest of the documentary features interviews with people who knew Vivian while she was alive, mostly the families she lived with while caring for their children, and a portrait of this brilliant, reclusive, family-less, eccentric woman begins to emerge.

There is a lot at play in this movie. First are the photographs, which are often breathtaking. The majority were taken on city streets in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s while Vivian took the children in her charge on daily outings. Most are portraits of people taken slyly with a camera where the shooter looked down into the viewfinder as opposed to looking directly at the subject.

Then there is Vivian the person, a nanny so odd she made Marry Poppins look like Alice from “The Brady Bunch.” She was intensely private, and not only did she never show anyone her photographs, she also hardly ever divulged any personal information; even to the families, she lived with for several years.

She clearly had some mental health issues and some families had much more pleasant memories of Vivian than others, which all make it that much harder to get a clear picture of this woman.

Then there is Maloof himself whose motives are a little unclear. He voices frustration with the art establishment, namely museums, which are reluctant to embrace Maier’s work even though gallery shows of her photographs are wildly popular.

Maloof paints himself as the champion of an underappreciated artist —  and Maier’s work clearly speaks for itself. However, at the same time, he is also in position to make a boatload of money as the owner of Maier’s negatives and undeveloped rolls of film.

Since Vivian has no living relatives and since he was the one who brought her photographs to the world, Maloof has every legal and ethical right to her work; but you can see this makes some of the interviewees uneasy along with the shining of a bright light on the life of a woman who fought so hard to keep it private while she was alive.

There are no easy answers here which is what makes “Finding Vivian Maier” such a compelling film. It holds your interest as Vivian’s past is revealed in many surprising twists and turns, and each strikingly beautiful photograph that flashes up on the screen makes you wonder how her life would have been different if she had shared her art with the world.

There is a lesson in Vivian’s story about how greatness can come from the most unexpected of places and how the things we leave behind speak for us long after we’re gone.

Simply put, this is an exceptional documentary and a film worth seeking out.

“Finding Vivian Maier” is not rated and features some mature subject matter.

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