Finding Vivian Maier – A Photographer Rediscovered – Film Review



Watching a PBS program about hidden Chicago, Jeff Garlin (executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm) was fascinated by a young man’s discovery.  Turned on to the strange events, he contacted Charlie Siskel, an Emmy award winning documentarian, and the pair decided to develop the story.  Both having grown up in Chicago, they were fascinated with the history of this woman and with the search for the story.  With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, the film came to life. 


Art student John Maloof, who had frequented abandoned storage sheds seeking left behind treasures, came across a box of photographic negatives.  Curious, he began to explore the artist. 


It was 2007.  He could find nothing about the woman, Vivian Maier, but as he began to develop some of the pictures – many dating back to 1949 – he learned that this reclusive woman had been a nanny for many families – some well known people like Phil Donahue - both in the Chicago northern suburbs and all over the world. 


Finding Vivian Maier by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof

Joel managed to find a large number of other boxes containing not only more negatives, but undeveloped rolls of film, movie tapes, and historical artifacts that Vivian had collected in her life. 


Her photos captured the essence of humanity in a way that no other artist had been able to do.  With her ever ready Rollieflex camera, Vivian, with her undiscovered talents, had taken pictures of the poor, the alienated, and the disenfranchised.  Partially (probably) because of her own feeling of separateness from the employers she worked with and the society she lived in, Ms. Maier, who often tried to hide who she was and presented a very mysterious front, the photographer shot her subjects with a sensitivity seldom seen by other artists. 


The film, Finding Vivian Maier, which is a bit on the longish side, consists mostly of interviews with former employers and the grown children whom she cared for.  Reclusive and private, Vivian Maier led a very secretive life.   She apparently had a dark side to her, as well.  Some talked about memories of violent incidences and others talked about her obsessive habits.  Were they true?  Was she just misunderstood?  One cannot be sure.


Joel sources Vivian’s life back to a small town in France where she spent much of her childhood years. 


Why did we not hear of her before now? 


While creative types are often poor in business, this young woman, growing up in a post-Depression era when women were not considered business women and were not respected in the arts, it’s possible that she feared rejection.  However, she carried her collection of photos, as well as many other historical artifacts, from house to house and employment to employment. 


Despite her over 150,000 pictures, many which have appeared in galleries like the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and around the world including Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and Copenhagen, as other places, Ms. Maier has still not been acknowledged for her creative abilities by the museums, associations and powers that be.  Others, on the fringe of the photography world, have declared her to be among the most remarkable artists of the Twentieth Century. 


Dying alone and without friends, living on the charity of some of the grown children she cared for, Vivian appeared to have no money, but in fact, had she allowed her work to be discovered, she probably would have become quite wealthy.


Viewing the documentary in the comfort of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, it was a fascinating experience. 


The film, which had been in theaters last year, is now up for the Oscar nomination as best documentary and can now be viewed on iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon.  

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