In an unsmiling self-portrait (long before the selfie), she gazes into a mirror, hands on hips, as if daring it to blink. The photographer is Vivian Maier, and her expression seems appropriate for an artist who left a mysterious legacy behind when she died in 2009: boxes and boxes of negatives and unprocessed film, numbering in the thousands and revealing, when developed, a remarkable array of street photography.
Maier, a nanny in the Chicago area, was an eccentric figure who never showed her art, depicting street life from the 1950s to the ’90s, to anyone, or even spoke of it. It was packed away, along with receipts and loose buttons and newspaper clippings and the detritus of a life, to be found by someone, someday.
That someone was John Maloof, a Chicago historian who bid on a box of negatives at a local auction – and found an undiscovered 20th-century artist. “Finding Vivian Maier,” a documentary by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, is the engaging story of that discovery. Talking-head interviews with those who knew her (including many of her former charges, now grown) are interspersed with Maloof’s narration as he describes his search to find out who Vivian Maier was, and why she kept her work so private.
The mystery isn’t entirely solved – Maier took many of her secrets to her grave – but the film is nonetheless mesmerizing. Maier’s work, interspersed throughout the film, lets us hear her voice: an array of faces gazing at us, meeting her camera, creating a tiny moment in time.