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Lens Crafter

fm vivSecret photographer’s talent exposed in ‘Finding Vivian Maier’

Talk about a treasure hunt. In 2007, John Maloof, a real estate agent in the Chicago area, bought some miscellaneous boxes at an estate auction across the street, hoping to find some material for a book about his neighborhood. Disappointed not to find anything he could use for his project, Maloof had, instead, stumbled into one of the greatest discoveries in 20th century photography—the previously unknown but amazingly prolific work of amateur street photographer Vivian Maier.

Maloof determines to expose the work to the light of day at last, along with the mystery shrouding the artist herself, in the fascinating doc, Finding Vivian Maier.

Intrigued at first by a stash of carefully preserved, undeveloped negatives in one of the boxes he bought, Maloof had only a name to go on. But when he Googled “Vivian Maier,” nothing came up. So he selected some 200 of her images to develop and posted them in a photo blog online. The response was huge.

Photography gallery owner Howard Greenberg and professional photographer Mary Ellen Mark appear in the film to testify to Maier’s genius. But viewers don’t need instructions to appreciate her work. Whether her subjects are Highland Park socialites, teenagers in cars, kids at play, or winos and derelicts in inner city back alleys, Maier has a gift for gesture, expression, and composition, the telling moment, the fraught encounter. Her work with reflections—mirrors, shop windows, vending machines—is outstanding. She operated her box camera at hip level, engaging subjects with her eyes as she shot them.

But who was Vivian Maier? Through the blog, Maloof found others who had bought her boxes, and bought their boxes for his collection. A 2009 newspaper obit told him she had worked as a nanny, and an address he found in one of her boxes led Maloof to the last family she had worked for. They invited Maloof to the storage locker Maier had left behind, where he found (among tons of other ephemera), a giant trunk containing negatives and undeveloped rolls of film amounting to some 100,000 images.

In interviews with her formers employers and charges, and examination of all the stuff she obsessively kept—clothes, hats, shoes, uncashed tax checks, receipts, tickets, bus passes—the portrait of Maier that emerges is compelling in its oddity. Tall, angular, in shapeless shirtwaist dresses and straight, blunt-cut hair, often festooned with a plain felt or straw hat, she was like a figure out of time, a Depression-era character who might have been photographed by Diane Arbus in the midst of the express-yourself 1970s and ‘80s.

Solitary, unmarried, without children or relations of her own, she spent the last 40 years of her life working for other families as a live-in nanny and/or housekeeper. With food and shelter taken care of, without having to be cooped up all day in a conventional workplace, she could spend a lot more time roving the streets with her camera. Many of her former charges remember being dragged into some dubious neighborhoods as children on outings with their unusual nanny so Maier could take her pictures.

She was good with children (frequently her subjects), but Maier had a dark side too. She always lived in attic rooms upstairs and insisted on a lock on her door. According to one employer, she hoarded newspapers, stacked so high in the room on either side, there was only a very narrow pathway between them. She was drawn to lurid newspaper stories, disliked being touched, and deeply distrusted men, leading many who knew her to suspect she had survived some childhood trauma. Once, when a man in the street appeared to reach toward her, recalls one former charge, Maier “decked him.”

But whatever demons she may have faced in her personal life, Maier’s work speaks for itself. (I would have liked to see even more of her work in the film, since she was so prolific.) Although Maloof uncovers evidence that she was once planning a small exhibit in France, that so much of Maier’s work was never even developed (much less shown) suggests it was the process, not the outcome, that was important to her. And isn’t that what art is all about? 

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