Secret artist remains elusive

05/09/2014 12:00 AM

05/08/2014 4:39 PM

What if someone took more than 100,000 photographs over decades of shooting and absolutely no one was around to see them? And what if they turned out to be really, really good?

That in a nutshell is the stranger-than-fiction tale behind the gripping documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” a film that asks a pair of equally involving questions: Exactly who was this hidden master and how did her work and her life finally come to light?

If you have an interest in 20th century American photography, you likely know something of Maier, whose story became a media sensation in 2009 when a Chicago man named John Maloof posted a few hundred of Maier’s images on Flickr and asked “What do I do with this stuff?”

The response was thunderous, with people comparing Maier’s work to Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and other greats of midcentury street photography. The combination of the high quality of the images and the deceased Maier’s personal story – she had worked as a nanny and caregiver and had kept her artwork to herself – proved irresistible and gave her the instant fame she had not seemed to want in her lifetime.

“Finding Vivian Maier” is co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel (film critic Gene Siskel’s nephew). Though the photographer and the archivist never met, they seem like soul mates, equally determined to take things to the limit, which in Maloof’s case meant tracking down everything knowable about a woman who preferred to live her life in the shadows.

It started in 2007, when for $380 Maloof acquired at auction one of three trunks that contained many of Maier’s negatives.. Maloof then tracked down and bought Maier’s other two trunks, and he got hold of the rest of her possessions as well, which were considerable. For in addition to everything else this woman turned out to be a world-class hoarder.

Maloof tracked down people who knew Maier, many of whom appear in the documentary. They include the children (now adults) she was a nanny for, the people who hired her (including TV host Phil Donahue), even the proprietor of a Chicago antiques shop where Maier was a regular customer.

What we find out about Maier is fascinating.

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