Paradoxical.” “Bold.” “Mysterious.” “Eccentric.” “Private.” Five words to describe the subject of the new documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Who was Vivian Maier? A maid and nanny for families in the Chicago area. Why is everyone talking about her? Because Maier was arguably the 20th century’s most prolific and talented street photographer, she just didn’t bother to tell anyone.

Maier’s rise to fame began at a storage auction house in 2007, shortly before her death in 2009. An amateur historian, John Maloof, was working on a book about Chicago and needed archival photographs. He bid blindly on a box of negatives and won. Maloof had never heard of the photographer listed on the negatives (Maier) and tried to dig up information on her but came up blank. Yet, the more Maloof inspected the negatives, the clearer it became that someone quite talented, possibly professional, took the photos. With little to go on, Maloof began a search to uncover who Maier was.

Maloof dug through articles, receipts, and mail to track down the families she worked for. He visited the children (now adults) she once cared for and began to piece together an idea of who this brilliant artist was. Though Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary, Maloof plays it like a classic detective story. He addresses the camera, provides narration, and records himself at work, allowing us to join him through every strange twist and turn of the story.

Maloof uncovers a portrait of an odd, obsessed woman, constantly taking photos of people on the street, documenting the daily life surrounding her. Maier was never without her trusty Rolleiflex camera, and she never passed up a shot. One of the interviewees recounts a time a child Maier was watching was hit by a car. He remembers that Maier did not panic over the health of the child or even the safety of her job; she was too preoccupied snapping pictures. She took pictures of the accident, of the police, of the people standing around, and not for any purpose other than it all made for a great shot. This story might sound a touch embellished, benefitting from an imaginative memory, but it wasn’t, and Maloof has the pictures to prove it.

Maier also made home movies. In some, she talks to the children she cares for. In others, she talks to people on the street. Maloof singles one out that perfectly describes the paradox that was Vivian Maier: Maier exploring an area where a babysitter was murdered. Maier retraces the steps where the woman found the job posting, the neighborhood where the woman was likely murdered, and stops by the funeral home where the services were held.

“She’s kind of a journalist of the area,” Maloof says. “But usually, you do that to show people. She just didn’t.”

Maier shot thousands of photographs and hours of film and never showed anyone. She just kept taking photos and storing the negatives away. Shot after shot, box upon box.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Produced and directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Sundance Selects, Not rated, Running time 83 minutes, Premiered Sept. 9, 2013.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 39, “Treasure hunt.”