A documentary about a photographer can be as two-dimensional as a snapshot itself unless the shutterbug’s life also makes a compelling story. “Finding Vivian Maier,” the story of a Chicago nanny and street photographer is as fascinating for unraveling the life of its mysterious subject as it is for revealing her finely-observed photos. The Sundance Selects release, which opens Friday, recalls the 2010 doc “Bill Cunningham New York.” But unlike Cunningham, whose fashion-centered photos are seen weekly in the New York Times, Maier’s photos went unseen throughout her life.
The photos only came to light in 2007, after historian and author John Maloof came across a box of negatives at an auction while researching a book on Chicago history. For several years, Maloof tracked down more negatives, printed the remarkable photos and posted them on a blog which quickly went viral as the prolific nanny’s story captivated readers.
But the galleries he showed the work to saw the unknown woman more as a folk artist more than a serious photographer, despite the photos’ humor and skill. “What I was interested in was who was this person,” says Maloof, who after buying the first batch of negatives, found her recent obituary and tracked down who placed it — two of the now-adult charges of the longtime nanny who had also once worked for Phil Donahue.
Maloof thought of doing a documentary to help bring attention to her work, and comic Jeff Garlin, a photography buff, heard about the project and came on as executive producer. “He really wanted to help me,” said Maloof. “I needed help from somebody to structure the material and help with the narrative arc.” Garlin talked to Michael Moore, who recommended that Maloof work with documentary filmmaker Charlie Siskel, nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel. “He hit it off with how we wanted to tell the story,” says Maloof.
“The Chicago connection was exciting on many levels,” says Siskel. “She was a nanny in the neighborhood where I grew up in Highland Park. I saw films of the elementary school where I went, and recognized teachers. I recognized and understood the people who were our subjects.”
The doc screened at the Toronto, Palm Springs and Berlin Film Festivals and will also be available on VOD starting March 31. Maloof hopes it will help get draw attention to preserving Maier’s legacy and for her recognition as an artist. “The goal has been to put Vivian Maier in the history books — that doesn’t happen overnight,” he says.