An aptly obsessive study of obsession, “Finding Vivian Maier” sifts through the volumninous work and scant personal details of the titular street photographer, posthumously recognized as a genius of the form and a master of cultivated mystery. That this initially playful, ultimately haunting documentary is co-produced and co-directed by the principal owner and chief curator of Maier’s art, John Maloof, raises questions of self-promotion that could never be directed at the subject, who kept her many thousands of photos hidden from view. But Maloof also makes a compelling corollary to the compulsive shutterbug, resulting in the docu equivalent of double exposure.
Maloof and his collaborator Charlie Siskel strike a deft balance between insider knowledge and universal intrigue, allowing the film to score with Maier cultists as well as the heretofore uninitiated. Giving ample screen time to the photos themselves, bought by Maloof for cheap at a storage locker auction, the directors characterize Maier’s striking black-and-white work as that of an outsider who related particularly well to those on the fringes of ‘50s- and ‘60s-era American society, including children, African-Americans of all ages, and the poor of any color. (One of the docu’s many talking heads likens Maier to “Robert Frank with a square format.”)
At least as captivating as Maier’s photography is the slow-developing image of the woman behind the camera. Often dressing in men’s clothing and a large hat, her low-slung twin-lens Rolleiflex in tow, Maier toiled for decades as a nanny in the Chicago suburbs, taking her charges along on shoots in the big city and stashing countless rolls of undeveloped film in boxes that ended up lining the tiny bedrooms where she stayed. One former employer of Maier’s, speaking to the nanny’s reclusive nature, claims, “She would never have allowed this (film) to happen” in her lifetime.
Exactly why Maier chose to withhold the photos she clearly held dear is a puzzle the filmmakers can’t solve. Still, the photographer’s suppression of her own work seems entirely consistent with the picture of Maier as the epitome of eccentricity and elusiveness, a woman who exaggerated her experiences in France (along with her pseudo-continental accent), spelled her name in various ways and evidently had few if any friends. Her photos’ poignant grasp of “humanity and tragedy,” as one interviewee puts it, seems to have stemmed in part from her typically secret longing for community; apparently, Maier suffered abuse as a child and mental illness as an adult.
Fascinating glimpses into the artist’s psychology come largely from interviews with those whom Maier cared for many years ago. Recalling their odd childhoods with “Ms. Maier,” several of the nanny’s former charges persuasively point to her considerable “dark side,” even as the film suggests that nannying isn’t so different from Maier’s style of photography, both involving the expression of compassion.
For his part, the thirtysomething Maloof — periodically seen on camera, but not to an annoying degree — emerges as a kindred hoarder of the highest order, someone whose tons of images have been collected as a means not only of shrewd investment, but of psychological survival. Overhead shots of Maloof’s piles of Maier ephemera — including even her old receipts for film purchases — make clear that the documentarian not only loves the shooter’s street portraiture, but identifies with her temperament, admitting at one point that he’s “kind of compulsive with stuff” (an understatement to be sure).
Tech credits are sharp, and the film’s only significant flaw is its failure to elaborate on brief suggestions that Maier’s work, first beloved by visitors to Maloof’s blog, has remained unpopular among gatekeepers of the art-world establishment — especially when coupled with its climactic images of gallery-goers enjoying the fruits of Maier’s (and Maloof’s) labor, images that appear to contradict the earlier claim.