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‘Finding Vivian Maier’ Review: A Photographer as Fascinating as Her Photos

By  · Published on April 24th, 2014

Sundance Selects

Laugh all you want at those people who scour the country for lots, lockers and storage containers to bid on in the hopes of finding value within, but sometimes they do strike gold. More often than not though what they’ve blind bought turns out to be little more than worthless junk.

John Maloof was looking only for old, black & white photographs when he bid on and won a box of negatives at a public auction in 2007. He had never heard of the photographer, Vivian Maier, and neither had anyone else. He found it odd if only because the photos, pictures of strangers on the streets of Chicago, showed an eye for both the beauty and tragedy of humanity. A Google search came up equally empty at first, but as time passed he bought additional boxes of her property (eventually amassing over 100,000 negatives, rolls of undeveloped film and more) before discovering an obituary notice in 2009. Maier had died at the age 83 in the same obscurity in which she had lived.

Maloof posted dozens of the photos online, and his opinion as to their quality was quickly affirmed by the response they earned from commenters. But how could such a talented photographer have gone her entire life without recognition, and is it really possible that she never developed a single picture she took throughout her life? Finding Vivian Maier follows Maloof as he goes looking for answers and discovers a woman as unique and troubled as she was talented.

An attempt to get the Museum of Modern Art to recognize her work is unsuccessful, but the positive public response continues to grow after Maloof hosts his own small showing. Critics and fans alike acknowledged the artistic merits of her photos that show a clear sense of humor alongside an attraction towards the darker side of the human condition. His investigation into who Maier was and what she was like is where the real story lies though.

Maier spent decades working as a nanny and/or maid for various families (including a brief time with Phil Donahue!), and interviews with the people who hired her and the children she looked after reveal a kaleidoscope of personas and traits that overlap but often don’t match-up. Some recall a thick French accent, others remember nothing of the sort. Her name shifted subtly between families, and stories of how she would give fake names at stores is capped with one woman recalling Maier telling her she was “sort of a spy.” Some of them have darker, harsher memories too, but the film moves unceremoniously away from those tales and their tellers.

One of the documentary’s lesser accomplishments is its lack of a third-act punch. Facts can’t be manufactured, and so we’re left with the pleasant but soft reality that Maier’s work is currently being displayed in galleries all over the world even as MOMA continues to resist embracing her and her work. Her death means we don’t get the emotionally affecting reaction shot to this new success… at least not from her.

Maloof currently owns nearly 90% of Maier’s artistic output and directly benefits from any sales of prints or of the two books he’s released in the past few years featuring her work. He feels slightly guilty exposing Maier to the world, an issue brought to the forefront by the repetition of talking heads confirming her intense sense of privacy, but it’s not enough to stop the Maier machine he’s currently running. He’s a passionate advocate for the further exposure of her photos, but by his own admission he’d happily share the wealth if only she were alive or had worthwhile family left. You can’t fault the man for the business opportunity, but it can be difficult to align his commercial interest with his desire to see Maier fully recognized by the art establishment.

Like Searching for Sugar Man or A Band Called Death, Maloof’s film (co-directed by Charlie Siskel) introduces us to an artist who never found the success they probably deserved earlier in life. There are two major differences though. She’s no longer alive to enjoy any long overdue success, and it’s not a story of someone trying and failing to find success with their art – she never tried at all. The question as to why she never really shared her photos is one left mostly unanswered by the film, but we do get a fascinating and revealing glimpse into who this enigma of an artist was.

The Upside: Fascinating glimpse into a life; intriguing story; engaging primer into Maier’s collection

The Downside: Lacks a fully satisfying finale; hints into darkness are teased without pursuit; Maloof’s intentions and financial gain deserve questioning

On the Side: Charlie Siskel is also a writer for Tosh.O on Comedy Central.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.