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Finding Vivian Maier
MOVIE REVIEW by Richard Rivera
Finding Vivian Maier is an exciting documentary of discovery that asks all the right questions such as ‘who was this person, why did she take so many pictures, and why did she not show her photographs during her lifetime?’ and presents us with surprising answers that at times are quite dark.
I remember reading years ago about Mr. Maloof and his bid of $380 on a box of black & white negatives whose worth he was unsure of. He was writing a history book at the time and needed reference images of Chicago. To his surprise the box contained 50,000 negatives of remarkable photography.
The film explains that Mr. Maloof, who is still a young man and an avid photographer, was in the habit of going along with father and brother, visiting flea markets, and selling their “finds.” This particular “find” was amazing.
The photography of Vivian Maier—who worked as a nanny to middle-class children in New York City, the Hamptons, and Chicago—is exceptional in many ways. A street photographer in the same vein as Henri Cartier-Bresson, she had a perceptive photographic eye that captured the authentic human condition of urban America, whether quirky or tragic. After a stint as a factory worker Ms. Maier decided early on that she would rather have a job that allowed her more time outdoors. She hit on the combination of working as a nanny and photographing as she took her children on walks. It was the perfect answer to her insightful and observational nature as a photographer.*
Maier’s work has struck such a resonant chord that the first exhibition of her photography at the Chicago Cultural Center, undertaken by Mr. Maloof at his own expense, was in their own words “one of the biggest turnouts” they had ever had. The gallery was mobbed with people appreciating the work of a photographer who had never exhibited during her lifetime.**
One thing that becomes clear in the film is that without Mr. Maloof’s discovery and passionate championing of her photography, Vivian Maier’s work would have ended up in a trash dumpster.
The film includes interviews with veteran photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark who compare Maier’s work to Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, and Diane Arbus.
The film also interviews the people, once children in Vivian’s care, who share their unique perspective of being in the company of the eccentric photographer. Ms. Maier died in 2009.
If you love a tale of discovery, seeing street photography, and are fascinated by eccentric “creatives,” you will enjoy Finding Vivian Maier.
Postcript: The latest development in the tale of Vivian Maier is litigation that has challenged Mr. Maloof’s right to ownership of Ms. Maier’s photographs.
October 20, 2015
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