Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Strange magic

Documentary shines posthumous spotlight on eccentric nanny, gifted photographer

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Vivian Maier was a strange lady and she knew it. She duly, fiercely protected her anonymity as much as she could.

The irony of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, an inquiry into Maier's life and art, is that she did not want to be found.

On that score, she succeeded. She was already dead, at the age of 83, when co-director John Maloof discovered that the longtime nanny was also a gifted photographer. In 2007, Maloof had bid on a trunk containing thousands of negatives of the photographs Maier obsessively shot on the streets of New York City and Chicago. Shocked by the fine quality of her photographic eye, Maloof himself became obsessed with learning Vivian's story.

As luck would have it, Maier was also a hoarder. She kept receipts, notes, newspaper clippings, 8mm film and boxes of audiotapes, including her own narratives and man-on-the-street interviews. (Maier was a citizen journalist long before the phrase was ever coined, but alas, she never had a forum.)

Playing detective, Maloof simultaneously investigated Maier's life, interviewing the families for whom she served as a nanny, and mounted gallery showings of her art, enlisting photographic artists such as Mary Ellen Mark to confirm that, yes, undeniably, the woman had an eye.

The interviews with family members present a woman of pronounced eccentricity. After an early stint working in a factory, she cottoned to the notion of becoming a nanny because it would give her time to indulge her photographic habit. Sometimes, this meant she would take the children in her charge of "adventures" in the city, often to seedy or dangerous environs.

It's doubtful she took the jobs to indulge a maternal streak. When a young boy in her charge was injured in a traffic accident, Maier was more inclined to photograph the event than offer comfort to the child. As she aged, her behaviour became more erratic and her penchant for hoarding became more of an affliction.

Most curiously of all, she never made any apparent effort to have her work displayed. While she was alive, she was an artist with an audience of one.

Posthumously, Maloof is doing what he can celebrate her talent, putting her works on gallery display all over the world. The film is somewhat self-serving in that regard, because Maloof has a lot of time and money invested in establishing Maier's art credentials.

Fortunately, that does not distract from the enjoyment of the film and the sense of discovery that accompanies the sight of Maier's thrilling photographs. The film charges the imagination and compels the question: How many more undiscovered Vivian Maiers are out there?

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2014 C6

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