★★★★★ | Finding Vivian Maier

A young graduate working on a history project bought a suitcase full of photographic negatives in a Chicago auction hoping that one or two them maybe useful in his research. However what John Maloof discovered that day in 2007 was a treasure trove of what is undoubtedly one on the finest collection of street photography ever made. They all turned out to be the work of one person a Vivian Maier, someone so totally unknown there wasn’t a single mention of her on Google or any other Internet search engine.

A curious Maloof turned detective and his painstaking research helped him very gradually put together a picture of this mystery genius and at the same time discover and purchase even more of her work. Vivian Maier had been born in New York in 1929 and had then spent much of her childhood in France before returning to Chicago where she worked for almost 40 years as a Nanny. Every new discovery Maloof made about the unknown Maier was a shocking revelation as very few of the people she had worked for had any sense that this extremely odd woman they had hired to look after their offspring was a prolific obsessed photographer with such a remarkable eye. It seems most of her young charges knew as Nanny Maier dragged them through the seamier rough spots of the city clutching her camera looking for subjects as part of their daily constitutional.

As Maloof pieced together Maier’s story like a jigsaw what emerged was a picture of a very eccentric loner and a compulsive hoarder who was an immensely private person. It’s only when he traces her steps in France does he discover that Maier knew that she was talented but apart from a brief correspondence with one printer did she ever talk about letting people see her work. The fact that news of the discovery of the 100000 plus negatives and the 700 plus undeveloped rolls of film had gone viral, there were still doubters from the people who knew Maier that she would have ever wanted this worldwide fame and recognition.

This new documentary that Maloof wrote and directed, along with writer/producer Charlie Siskel, is exceptional for two distinct reasons. Firstly the very human story about this rather bizarre woman who was described as being ‘so awesomely unique’ and ‘a very closed cold person’ and who ended up losing one job with the mother explaining to her child ‘Vivian has got a little too crazy even for us’. The reminisces of the people who knew her are riveting and poignant. And then there is this whole superb body of work which is so exceptionally wonderful it stuns you into silence at times. Howard Greenberg a leading NY Gallerist who holds exhibitions of her work claims that no other photographer’s work has ever generated this much interest in his time.

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Credit to Maloof on several counts. Not only for recognising the significance of his find, and for his sheer doggedness and determination to ‘finding’ Vivian Maier, but also for the impressive way he put this all together in this, his first ever movie.

There are so many components of this story that will keep you wondering and wanting to know more. Like why would this aggressively shy person produce so many ingenious portraits of herself that she could have been credited as being the creator of the ubiquitous selfie?

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Unmissable: and you will want to see it at least twice.

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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