Film Capsule: Finding Vivian Maier

To know Vivian Maier was not to love her, or even understand her, according to a handful of acquaintances. For above all else, Vivian Maier valued her privacy. Maier spent the majority of her adult years living in close quarters, very often above or attached to the suburban families she was working for. A number of employers confirm Maier would ask for extra door locks, as well as some verbal assurance that no one – under any circumstances – be granted access to her room.

This curious aspect of Maier’s persona is on irrepressible display throughout John Maloof’s 83-minute documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. Maloof, a part-time historian and full-time real-estate agent, purchased an entire box of Maier prints for $380 at an abandoned storage auction back in the winter of 2007. At the time, no one really knew who Vivian Maier was, let alone the fact she had a more genuine eye for emotion than most celebrated photographers. Upon immediate investigation, the only relevant bit of info Maloof was able to uncover was that Maier – a long-time nanny and hoarder – had recently died.

Without providing any major spoilers, I should mention that it’s difficult to watch this documentary without considering John Maloof’s motives. It’s clear Maloof was captivated by the 30,000+ negatives he originally found in Maier’s box. But one also gets the impression Maloof viewed Maier as an opportunity – that one-time happy accident someone might mold into an industry. And it is for this reason the majority of viewers might find themselves torn, debating whether Maier – a demure, middle-aged introvert who looked, and sometimes even behaved, like Almira Gulch – is actually being compromised.

I mean, there’s also the counterargument that Maier rarely seemed to ask permission before – or even after – shooting the lion’s share of her subjects. The primary difference being, whether by choice or unfortunate circumstance, Maier went on to protect her subjects’ anonymity right up until the point of death.

Maloof, meanwhile, has licensed an ongoing run of gallery exhibits, two published volumes worth of Maier photos, one critically-acclaimed documentary and a highly lucrative print business … and that’s during the past three years alone. The good news: Regardless of the intention, Finding Vivian Maier makes for a fascinating study, if not an ongoing topic for debate, which is – of course – one of the hallmarks of any great piece of art.

(Finding Vivian MaierĀ is scheduled for a limited run staring tomorrow through November 21st, at both the IFC Center and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.)