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Finding Vivian Maier

Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve probably heard the story: the nanny who spent her life in obscurity, leaving behind more than 100,000 photographs that many consider among the great 20th-century bodies of work, often mentioned with Diane Arbus and Robert Frank.

Throughout her life, Vivian Maier worked for various families in New York City and Chicago, using her time off to explore the city streets (often with her young charges in tow) and taking photographs. The pictures are compelling, often astonishing: The people in them regard you casually, even coolly, despite the fact they are often in what might be called reduced circumstances. They are portraits taken on the fly by an artist with a keen eye, an open heart, and a command of her craft.

So why did she never exhibit her work, never even try to do so? That’s one of many unanswered questions at the heart of this documentary. Looking for images of old Chicago, director John Maloof found boxes of her negatives at a 2007 auction of property taken from unpaid storage lockers. Fascinated by what he found, he went on to locate more of her hoardings—eight-millimeter film, tape recordings, receipts, even uncashed income tax checks. But it wasn’t until after her death in 2009 that her obituary gave him the first thread into her life.

That Maier chose to remain private and would not have welcomed the fame she posthumously enjoys is a factor Maloof acknowledges without letting it hold him back. You can’t blame him: If he (and co-director Charlie Siskel) weren’t doing this digging, someone else inevitably would. That so much about Maier remains unknown, and that she seems to have no heirs, will make it that much easier for Hollywood to crank out a biopic, which is so much easier when you’re not held back by too many pesky facts.

And Maier may be laughing from beyond the grave that much of what Maloof has learned is contradictory: Listen to the two men who knew her arguing knowledgeably and authoritatively that she had a French accent and that her accent was obviously fake. Her now-grown charges (several of whom supported her in her last years) variously testify that she was kind and loving or that she was stern and foreboding.

Consider it, then, a testament to the unknowability of the human soul, and proof that you can never define an artist any more narrowly than as a person who makes art.

Watch the trailer for Finding Vivian Maier

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