A documentary about obsession on two counts, “Finding Vivian Maier” tells the story of a couple of remarkable people. One is John Maloof, its co-director and cameraman, as well as one of its most prominent interviewees. He explains how as a child he accompanied his father to unclaimed storage auctions and now continues to do so on his own. On one such outing he purchased, on a lark, a box of old photographic negatives, which he developed and began posting on the Internet to an enthusiastic response. Ultimately experts opined that Maloof had discovered an exceptionally talented, and entirely unknown, photographer of Chicago street life—an extraordinarily productive woman named Vivian Maier.
Maier became Maloof’s special project, and his concern with collecting, cataloguing and promoting her work became as obsessive as her photo-taking had been. The film, co-directed by Charlie Siskel and edited by Aaron Wickenden (and set to to a pleasant score by J. Ralph), balances their two stories nicely. It follows Maloof as he seeks not only to accumulate as many of Maier’s stills and home movies as he can by searching out people who bought other boxes of her property, but also to bring notice of them to the art world while researching who she was.
His first efforts to uncover information about Maier were unsuccessful, but over time he was able to construct a fascinating, if incomplete biography that reveals a woman of considerable mystery and contradiction. Maloof reports that she spent most of her life as a nanny in the Chicago area, and tracks down families she worked for (including Phil Donahue’s), as well as some of their neighbors, for their recollections, which turn out to be illuminating, though often contradictory. He goes through the stuff Maier left behind in storage, and finding that she was a hoarder who never threw out even a receipt, tries to glean some understanding of her from the debris. He finds occasional acquaintances who offer their observations, some of which point to Maier’s habit of concealment (like a faux continental accent). He hires genealogical researchers to ferret out information about her childhood in New York, and travels to France to locate her mother’s home village—and Vivian’s remaining relatives. And he visits the area where she spent her last days, interviewing some of those who knew her there—as far as she allowed herself to be known at all.
Throughout the film there are nagging questions about the compulsion that moved Maier to live the sort of life she chose and to take so many photographs that she never bothered to have developed. There are hints of a dark side to her personality, even of mental instability, but also of more obscure motivations behind her work, especially in her investigation of a murder case that assumed a near-paparazzi aspect. And on several occasions interviewees wonder whether Maier would have appreciated being “discovered” at all, or considered what Maloof is doing in her memory an invasion of the privacy she so studiously sought in life. But ultimately all Maloof can offer are suggestions rather than definitive answers to the questions about her that the film raises.
As it turns out, however, that’s enough, because ultimately the key to the significance of “Finding Vivian Maier” is that it invites viewers to reflect on the line between artist and art. Maloof tries to discover Maier the person, but though his efforts are valiant, she remains opaque, even inexplicable—a complicated mixture of motives and traits that tease us just as the succession of “self-portraits” she took, using mirrors and other devices, do. But he’s more successful in pinning down Maier the artist, showing her as a photographer with a great eye whose stills combine realism (or at least the illusion of it, since she apparently posed some of the scenes) with a magical, apparently innate, mastery of composition. He notes that there continues to be reluctance among the art establishment to acknowledge her talent, but at the same time introduces photographers who speak with admiration of her work, as well as scenes showing appreciative crowds at the gallery exhibitions of her photos that he’s been instrumental in arranging.
The result is a filmmaker’s labor of love about a woman whose oddly secretive artistic career seems to have been a labor of love as well. It’s fortuitous that the two found one another; they prove a winning match.