There are two or three different reasons that on their own make Finding Vivian Maier a film worthy of your attention. It is an outstanding mystery that unfolds as it's being filmed; it's a celebration of extraordinary photos by a singular artist; and it's a fully realized biography that contains all the highs and lows that come from in-depth examinations of eccentric personalities. If it were only one of these things, it would be worth seeing. But this film happens to be all of those things at once, and it will absolutely overwhelm you.
In 2007, Chicago-based filmmaker John Maloof needed images for a book he was writing about his neighborhood. So he bid on a box of unmarked photo negatives from the auction house across the street, hoping he'd be able to use something he found. He paid $380 for the lot but ended up not being able to work the shots into the book project, and for a while the box just sat in his closet, collecting dust. But the photos were good — really good. Maloof eventually took the box of negatives to local photographers and gallerists to ask their opinion. And just like that, the world started falling for Vivian Maier.
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark describes Maier's work as "Robert Frank with a square format," before running down a laundry list of great 20th century street photographers to compare Maier to, like Lisette Model, Helen Levitt and Diane Arbus. As Mark says each name, an iconic work by that photographer is juxtaposed onscreen with a similar work by Maier — and Maier's photos don't just hold up, but in some cases (as in Arbus' "Identical Twins," arguably the photographer's most iconic shot), Maier's photo seems to come out ahead. "Had she made herself known she would have become a famous photographer," Mark says with exasperated certainty, like someone who knows just how rare that kind of gift is.
Find out why Maier didn't make herself known in the rest of the story from this week's Scene.