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Film Review: The Vivian Maier Mystery

If fine art has a consistent ancillary joy, it's finding great talent suddenly, in quantity. Five years ago, a number of storage locker hunters discovered photographer Vivian Maier. While the elderly Maier lay dying in a Chicago hospital, her life's work got divided a and auctioned off. Buyers wanted not her art, but her suitcases, clothes, the hope of finding hidden antiques. Maier had been a hoarder for decades. She stashe ad more and more items into storage lockers until she finally couldn't afford the bills. Her mental illness and penury are the only reasons she's now had a career ascent akin to Diane Arbus in the early seventies.


The comparison isn't terribly fair to Arbus, a working commercial photographer in New York. Still the art world has often regarded Diane as a forgotten, vulnerable genius. Maier led a far more obscure existence. As The Vivian Maier Mystery makes clear, no one, not even the families in which Maier worked as a nanny, knew about the quality of the images she captured over decades. They knew she carried a boxy Rollieflex camera and took pictures constantly. Igner Raymond, once a child Maier looked after, shares her amazement to learn a half-century later that period of her childhood can be revisited. Maier found real people compelling, and to see her subjects or their relatives so moved by this odd woman's ability draws you into this documentary.  


Don't confuse The Vivian Maier Mystery, an hour-long program aired originally on the BBC, with John Maloof's and Charles Siskel's wonderful feature documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. The Maloof/Siskel film focuses on Maloof's role in discovering that experts and the public thought Maier's work had artistic value. Finding Vivian Maier shows Maloof purchased lots of Maier's possessions thinking he would use the photos to promote a real estate project.  In contrast The Vivian Maier Mystery, while explaining Maloof's role, dwells on the other owners of Maier's oeuvre. 


Maloof's refusal to participate in The Vivian Maier Mystery becomes quite helpful. The viewer sees new images and hear new perspectives on how this treasure trove of images (prints now go for $2,000; over 150,000 images exist) became commercialized. It's a true Chicago story, down to burly firemen and armed off-duty officers protecting dealers donning vests are stuffed with cash.  As charming as John Maloof was, he took up a lot of airspace. Maier, the artist, needs new interpretations. She worked with children, despite having many bizarre tendencies. Her story, like her photographs, show a very different, less guarded America. One would hope she wouldn't be let near children today, though the family she stayed with for much of the 1960s described her as "Mary Poppins." But Julie Andrews didn't prowl Chicago's slums armed with a Rollieflex, a French accent, and attitude.


Truthfully, artists, being people, live paradoxically.  Acquaintances describe Maier as intensely secretive. Yet she photographed herself frequently and even asked child-charges to snap images. The woman we see exudes confidence, looking often right into the lens. She brazenly went into the worst neighborhoods of Chicago and New York, yet seemed afraid of interacting with people. She shied from actual contact while capturing intimacy every time she peered into her viewfinder.  She created images she must have known were beautiful, but didn't mention her work to the prominent photo editor who employed her. Didn't she know she had talent? Didn't she want fame and wealth?   


All of us live with conflicting tensions. When we see someone hold them forth so vividly in her persona and work, we cannot help but desire more and think further on what we've seen. We know Vivian Maier  today only by a few lucky flukes, yet from her grave it would seem she fashioned our relationship with her on terms she always wanted to have.  


To learn more about The Vivian Maier Mystery or access the program, visit:

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Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt

B. E. Mintz

Stephen Babcock

Published Daily