KUSP Film Review

Finding Vivian Maier


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, or read it below.


Finding Vivian Maier – a film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

At one time or another many of us may ask ourselves if we possess hidden talents. But what about those who deliberately choose to hide their gifts? In 2009, at a Chicago auction house seeking material for a book, photographer John Maloof serendipitously came upon just such an unacknowledged, purposefully obscure talent, an ostensibly forgettable, recently deceased nanny named Vivian Maier, who left behind a horde of photographs, negatives and motion picture film that convinced him to investigate who she was.

Finding Vivian Maier is Maloof’s eulogy to a person who is quickly becoming one of the photographic “finds” of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Maloof takes us into the archive Maier curated, then sets out to find people who knew her, piecing together the shards of a life lived surreptitiously, as what she termed a “spy” but not of the ordinary cloak and dagger type. Rather, her mission was to take pictures, thousands of them, documenting daily life for over fifty years. Work as a nanny afforded the kind of cover that could protect and insulate her from a world which otherwise threatened to intrude upon her jealously guarded privacy.

The result of Maloof’s odyssey is the painstaking reconstruction of the arc of an artist of extraordinary breadth and depth, with an eye that rivals the best known photographers in the history of the craft, such as Diane Arbus. Because she was an unknown the posthumous discovery of Maier’s images initially met with icy silence by the art world, in spite of their compelling power and emotive content. In large part due to Maloof’s efforts, that has changed; she is now the subject of exhibitions in several of the most prestigious museums and galleries across the United States.

But who was Vivian Maier? This question propels Maloof’s sleuthing, the evidence of which he shares with his cinematic audience as he speaks eye to eye with viewers. A Sundance selection, Finding Vivian Maier moves like a whodunit. Maloof asks the obvious: What was she hiding? In addressing it he unmasks a myriad of potential conspirators, beginning with those for whom she worked, the families who hired her and the children she attended, each of whom adds a piece to the puzzle, even as they themselves denied the problematic features of her personality. We learn she was a packrat, that she had a dark side, and that she had primal fears of the world, but that the constant was her penchant for taking pictures. Few asked who she was, leaving the door open for Maloof to doggedly trace her back to a natal Alpine village.

Finding Vivian Maier is a revelation and an emotional roller coaster. Take the ride.

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