‘Finding Vivian Maier’: Documentary turns the camera on a photographer | 3 stars

05/01/2014 1:00 PM

04/30/2014 4:22 PM

Not rated | Time: 1:23

Vivian Maier, who died in 2009, worked as a nanny in the Chicago suburbs. She would take the children she cared for on walking tours of questionable neighborhoods, where she photographed the denizens with a Rolleiflex camera. She created tens of thousands of negatives but never exhibited her work.

“Finding Vivian Maier” is an engaging documentary attempt to probe her mystery, and it offers some answers — she was secretive and stubborn, a hoarder of epic proportions who seems to have had fits of instability. She also wasn’t always nice to her young charges.

Most importantly, she produced a body of work that some have compared to the street photography of Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. The film makes clear that not all the experts agree about the value of her pictures, but those we see are impressive, at least to my (amateur) eyes.

Maier was basically unheard-of until 2007, when John Maloof, one of the film’s directors (with Charlie Siskel), bought a box of negatives at an auction. It took him awhile to realize he’d hit the jackpot with that $380 investment. Spurred by the quality of the work, he bought more and learned that the negatives were taken by someone about whom little or no information was available.

In 2009, he posted some of her images on the Internet, and Maier quickly acquired the kind of fame she avoided in life.

In addition to showing us many of her striking photos, Maloof interviews many of the children, now adults, whom Maier nannied. He notes her obsessive collecting of huge stacks of newspapers, and traces her heritage to the French Alps. He also gives himself a fair amount of camera time, perhaps a bit too much.

While the search to pin down Maier sometimes seems a bit breathless, the directors don’t pretend that they have pierced the heart of her mystery. Maier isn’t an eccentric puzzle to be solved. The film should be seen as an introduction to her work, which is what matters, and an invitation to see more of it, which many viewers will want to do.

(At the Tivoli.)

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