Imagine if Diane Arbus had moved to Chicago and worked for 40 years as a full-time nanny while taking more than 100,000 photographs that no one ever saw. That’s the story of Vivian Maier, who died in 2009 and since then has become recognized as one of the great street photographers of the last century. It’s also the subject of a new Sundance Selects documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which debuts in theaters on March 28.
Like last year’s Oscar winner “Searching for Sugar Man,” this film tries to solve the mystery of an artist shrouded in obscurity. But much of the mystery remains. Like Arbus, Maier was born in New York in the 1920s and later struggled with mental illness. Her work, however, is closer to the photojournalism of Weegee, typified by arresting and unsentimental images of street scenes shot in black and white. Even while serving as a nanny for a string of employers (including talk show veteran Phil Donahue), she was an eccentric loner and a pack rat, living at one point in a cluttered attic with a lock on the door. The details of her life are sketchy.
“Finding Vivian Maier” was co-directed by John Maloof, who’s a central figure in the story — he paid $380 for a box of about 30,000 of Maier’s negatives in 2007, when they went up for auction because she couldn’t keep up with the rent on a storage locker. A local historian just looking for vintage photos, Maloof soon realized what he’d stumbled across and went back for more. Given that he now owns the bulk of Maier’s work, his documentary might seem self-serving, but Maloof’s motives clearly aren’t mercenary. His enthusiasm led to a blog, two books and exhibitions in cities from London to Los Angeles. Although she probably would have hated the idea during her lifetime, Vivian Maier is obscure no more. —John Birmingham