Movie review: Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

People are bizarre in their own unique ways. Finding Vivian Maier lends support to this statement.

The movie basically shows the unraveling of the life of a photographer. In 2007, John Maloof successfully bid on a box of negatives at an auction. Working on a historical book, he hoped that the negatives would provide photography for the story he was telling. Little did he know what he was wading into.

Although the negatives didn’t pan out to supplement his own work, he became intrigued by (some might say obsessed with) the photos and the mysterious, and unknown, woman behind them.

John discovered that Vivian had been a nanny and a hoarder. In 2009, he stumbled across her obituary. Events led him to two former charges, who had been paying for a storage unit for boxes upon boxes of her belongings. They were getting ready to throw all into a dumpster but John was welcome to anything he wanted.

He salvaged boxes, trunks, and suitcases from the mess and set about trying to organize the contents. Ms. Maier kept everything—receipts, tickets, clothing, negatives, undeveloped film.

From this voluminous amount of physical objects, John pieced together Ms. Maier’s life. He met with people who employed Ms. Maier as a nanny and those who were her charges.

He discovered her lineage and through comparing her photos from different times, zeroed in on the French village that she visited in her younger days. He tracked down a photography shop in that village along with letters indicating that Ms. Maier sought a professional relationship with the shop to produce her works. (The question remains about why that relationship never materialized.)

A picture emerges of an astounding artist and a bizarre woman with probably a troubled past. The stories recounted by her former wards shows a woman who inflicted a number of abuses on children but was also contradictorily described as loving and compassionate. Profoundly private, as her life unfolded, any mental illness that she suffered from seemed to sharpen. In the end, she died alone and unknown.

John has attempted to salvage her works. He approached museums for help in preserving and archiving her photos, only to be rebuffed. While the art establishment has been cool to warm to Ms. Maier, the public at large has not. Exhibitions throughout the world have been embraced by hordes of admirers.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating tale of the research into the life of an unknown artist. The film shows just how little you can know of someone in your midst—a great artist may be walking among you—and reinforces the belief that everyone is bizarre in their own unique way. Just some more than others.

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