Finding Vivian Maier is the next great art doc 

The Realms of the Undeveloped

The Realms of the Undeveloped

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.

But Vivian Maier did not make herself known. In fact, she went to great lengths to avoid being found. Despite storage units filled with tens of thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, and a photojournalist's instinct for storytelling, Maier seemed never to have an audience for her photographs in mind. She gave false names to employers, avoided disclosing personal details to friends, insisted on having locks installed on her door. She may have faked her accent. And most maddening of all, she made her living as a nanny and kept her talent to herself. Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel make the unearthing of these details (and many more) part of the documentary's drama, with each revelation only stoking the viewer's curiosity.

At last year's Joint exhibition in a gutted farmhouse along 12th Avenue South, a row of Maier's photos was set up alongside Irving Penn's and Richard Avedon's. But it was Maier's work that drove the most conversation — not just because of her story, but because the images, like the portrait of an African-American woman resting her chin in her hand, or the gorgeous model standing in front of New York's public library, were so strong. The interest generated by the elusive tale of Maier herself is just icing on the cake. Imagine if In the Realms of the Unreal, the documentary about Henry Darger, an artist whose work was similarly discovered posthumously, uncovered not Darger's impish fantasy world of pre-pubescent girls and butterflies, but instead the entire catalog of Norman Rockwell. That's how momentous Vivian Maier's work is. She is not a marginal artist — her work could, in 50 years, be part of photography's canon. And if it weren't for Maloof — and now this remarkable film — no one would have even heard of her.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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