In 2007, John Maloof bought a box full of negatives that an auction house recorded as belonging to an unknown photographer, Vivian Maier. Four years later, having marveled at hundreds of thousands of photos that reveal Maier’s keen eye, she’s become his quest: Maloof Kickstarted a documentary to reconstruct the life of an artist whose talent was unmistakable and whose life was perplexing.
And it’s fitting, considering what follows, that Finding Vivian Maier begins with a montage of silence, as people who knew her try to distill her into a single word, all different. In beginning to uncover the cipher behind the lens—who worked, apparently indifferently, as a nanny, among other things—it’s telling how much of her psychology remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma carrying a camera. Besides making the interviews a study in pictures being worth a thousand words (particularly when Maier’s revealing snapshots of her charges appear alongside their reminiscences), Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel don’t flinch from the darker revelations. Her cruelty and troubled, private past become as much a part of her legacy as her photographs, her ability to connect effortlessly with life through a photo providing a haunting counterpoint to her terrible outbursts, her particular habits, and her sharp edges seemingly designed to keep others at bay.
“She might have seen this as kind of an intrusion,” one of her former employers says uneasily of Maloof’s attempts to track Maier’s life, including going to the village where she grew up; from what we learn of her, that might be true. But balancing halfway between an artistic retrospective and a detective flick, Maloof is as obsessively fascinated with a woman he’d never met as she ever was with her lens. It makes for a gripping story of the vanishing artist behind the art.