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'Finding Vivian Maier' review: A mysterious photographer is exposed

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Finding Vivian Maier

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Once in a while a story astounds – case in point, the literally “found footage” story of amateur photographer, Vivian Maier. In the fascinating documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” producers/directors, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel showcase the stunning photographs by this “career nanny,” while asking just who this reclusive Vivian was?

Maloof is introduced as one of the characters in the story when, in 2007, he attended a junk and furniture auction and bid upon a box of photos and negatives to use for a book he was writing on his Chicago neighborhood. He paid $380 for the lot. Looking through the box, he realized that none really worked for his book and stored the photos in a closet.

Cut to a few years later, Maloof was going through the photos and thought they were quite good. He scanned and posted them on a photo blog to see how others would respond. The response was overwhelming.

Maloof decided to investigate and find out who this extraordinary street photographer was. He had a few notes and receipts in the box; it was enough to get a name and ultimately find a recent obituary for a woman known as Vivian Maier, a career nanny. A career nanny? Could this be right?

Thus, began the film journey of “Finding Vivian Maier.” The filmmakers trace Vivian’s story through public records, the parents and children she cared for, and friends (mostly acquaintances). The clues take Maloof and Siskel to New York, Chicago, and even the French Alps.

All interviewees remembered Vivian (some fondly; others, not so much). Most thought she was eccentric, private, and later a packrat. She always carried her Rolleiflex camera, but most had never seen any of her photos.

As an investigative documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier” only half succeeds because of the lack of intimate knowledge about the deceased Vivian; she’s not here to talk about her life or answer why she never showed her photos. Likewise, those who employed or were cared for by Vivian describe Vivian differently, as seen in the opening moments of the documentary. She was a complicated character – a “mystery woman” as she often called herself. And, even in the film’s closing moments, one can only theorize about the real Vivian.

Yet, what the film wondrously delivers is bringing to the general public the glorious images shot by Vivian over four decades – the eye-catching street scenes and intriguing self-portraits. Since Vivian’s work has come to light, she’s been hailed as one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers. Esteemed New York gallery owner, Howard Greenberg, who helps handle her prints, says the demand for a Vivian Maier print now outnumbers those photographers who are household names.

Does that make Maloof a bit self-serving, in that his documentary about Vivian also drives interest in her photos, which he now controls? Maybe, but on the other hand, he discovered (even if accidently) and championed her work; he recognized Vivian’s keen eye and was passionate about getting her work into galleries and museums. (And if you visit the Vivian Maier website, you’ll see how successful Maloof has been in launching showings of her work.)

No matter how one contemplates the politics, “Finding Vivian Maier” is an amazing story. Seeing her incredible photographs is a gift. As an art lover, one would like to think that Vivian would have found satisfaction in seeing her photos receive this kind of acclaim. But then again, some of the people interviewed think Vivian would have been horrified – that she and her photos were private, not to be put in the spotlight.

You be the judge while thrilling in Vivian’s work in the captivating, “Finding Vivian Maier.”

“Finding Vivian Maier” is 83 minutes, Not Rated, and opens in Los Angeles on March 28 at the Landmark Theatre.

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