Movies

Review: 'Finding Vivian Maier'

Three stars

Photographer John Maloof was only looking for some historical photos of the Chicago area when he purchased a box of undeveloped negatives at an auction in the winter of 2007. At the time, Maloof was working on a history book about the Windy City, and he hoped to find some images to complement that effort. Instead, he ended up discovering the work of a previously unknown artist -- Vivian Maier -- who is now being compared to some of the greatest street photographers of all time.

That's where we are dropped into the new documentary, "Finding Vivian Maier," co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel. But, as the title of the film hints, Maloof's discovery is only half of the story -- and it's only half the fun.

After explaining how he came to find the photographs, and how he subsequently tracked down a storage unit full of her personal affects and more undeveloped negatives (all told, Maloof collected around 100,000 unprocessed images), we are introduced to a number of Maier's former friends, as well as several families that had employed Maier as a nanny in the '50s and '60s. And that's where things begin to get interesting.

Though some of the people Maloof interviews professed to have been great friends with Maier -- and while she often lived under the same roof of the children she cared for and their parents -- no one seems to know much about her. Some say they thought she was French, on account of her accent. Others say they believed she may have been Austrian. And one man, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and wrote a dissertation on French vowel sounds, said he was quite positive her accent was an affectation.

Furthermore, some told Maloof that they were aware of Maier's picture-snapping hobby, but then they admit they never really wondered what she did with the photos she took. In one of the many taped conversations Maier recorded, a child asks her who she is, and she says "I'm the mystery woman."

Indeed.

All of the subjects share the same feeling of surprise and regret upon seeing those images, developed by Maloof some 50 years on. Maier had "had a great eye," we are told by photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, as well as a "sense of humor and a sense of tragedy."

Maier's images are certainly moving. Over the course of her life, Maier captured so many telling, candid moments on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere. And Maloof shows us those moments again and again in his documentary, which tells the story of Maier, as well as his discovery of her and her background in a manner that keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat.

Maloof repeatedly encounters confounding questions -- Who was this woman and where did she come from? Why did she never show her work? What happened to her in the end? -- and he repeatedly answers these questions, often to very cathartic effect.

It is the posing and the answering of these questions that ultimately makes "Finding Vivian Maier" such a satisfying film. Maier's photographs speak for themselves -- thousands upon thousands of beautiful words and crystallized emotions at a time. And yet, while her work certainly needs no explanation, Maier has managed to add something to the picture that was missing. And that is no small accomplishment.

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