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FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (director/writer: John Maloof/Charlie Siskel; cinematographer: John Maloof; editor: Aaron Wickenden; music: J. Ralph; Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: John Maloof/Charlie Siskel; Sundance Selects; 2013)
Co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel have a good mystery tale to tell of a governess in the suburban Chicago area.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel have a good mystery tale to tell of a governess in the suburban Chicago area, the French-accented Vivian Maier (1926-2009), who was born in France to a French and Austrian couple and died broke in a Chicago apartment paid for by the now middle-aged boys she took care of when they were youngsters, without anyone aware she was a most talented street photographer even though she always had a camera draped around her neck. Her recognition by the public, in gallery shows, but not yet the art institutions, comes posthumously, when in 2007 history student and curator, the now thirty-something, John Maloof buys at a Chicago auction house for around four hundred dollars over 100,000 photographs stored in a box that were never viewed publicly in her lifetime and the compulsive Maloof became obsessed to get the riveting photographs organized so they could be promoted on twitter and on his blog and organized for collections.

The only ones who have anything to say about the mysterious nanny, who was a loner, often dressed in men’s clothes and had no relationships with either sex, are her former employers, who are interviewed by the co-directors. We learn nothing of her parents or of relatives. During the interviews it becomes apparent the employers only knew her in a limited way, and thought that even though she was a caring nanny she had a dark side, could be less than lovable, had peculiar traits, was eccentric and might even have been a bit mentally touched. They mention she kept stacks of newspapers in her room, collected junk and was a hoarder, and never went out. It’s mentioned when she was younger she traveled abroad to Europe and South America, but we learn nothing of those experiences. We also never learn Vivian’s motivation for taking pictures with her Rolleiflex camera, why she never showed them or what she was all about. But the luminous black-and-white photos do the talking for her from beyond the grave, especially those from the ‘50s- and ‘60s-era in Chicago that either playfully or sensitively capture in their essence children, the elderly, the working-class, African-Americans and the downtrodden. Vivian’s photos connect with us because they are professionally shot with great skill and have a fresh look that gives us an intriguing intimacy with the human condition of her subject matter.

We also learn that Vivian worked briefly as a nanny for the divorced talk show-host Phil Donahue’s four boys, but he has nothing to say about her and never knew she was a photographer.

It’s interesting to note, in this rewarding though incomplete biopic, that noted street photographer Joel Meyerowitz raves about Maier’s work as filled with human understanding, warmth and playfulness that proves she was “a real shooter.” Another noted photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, also validates her work as one of a true artist.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”