The Search for an Elusive Photographer

finding_vivian_maier_xlgIt’s the stuff of art history legend. In 2007, Chicago real estate agent and Americana collector John Maloof purchased a box of negatives at an auction for about $400 but had  no idea what he found. He scanned some of them and only then realized what a treasure trove of incredible street photographs he had come across. Taken in Chicago and elsewhere over the middle decades of the 20th Century, the number of images ran into the tens of thousands. But who took them? His search for the photographer and the answer to why she never exhibited her work is the thrust of this fascinating and visually enthralling documentary directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“tosh.O”),“Finding Vivian Maier.”

Joel Meyerowitz, famous for his own large format color photography, points out that the pictures show a real eye, and compares them to the work of greats like Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and Atget. But, as another interviewee puts it, the story of the photographer is even more interesting than the photos.

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for most of her life. This, as one of her past employers observed, provided her with both housing and enough free time to take pictures. Which she did. Over 100,000 to be specific! But she also had a dark side, according to several of her former charges. She wasn’t above force feeding a child and dispassionately photographed another after they were injured in a minor car accident. Vivian never married and was an obsessive hoarder of newspapers. She loved collecting dark news stories that validated her sense of the folly of life; one compassionate ex-employer says with tears in her eyes, after recalling having to fire her. She was stern, private, and often difficult. A linguist who met her claims her French accent was fake. (“The vowels were too long. My master’s thesis was on French vowels.”) She had an obsessive fear of men that suggests some prior mistreatment and may have suffered from undiagnosed mental illness. She avoided doctors. “The poor can’t afford to die,” she said. Read more