What is it about genius that fascinates us, especially unappreciated genius?
From Edgar Allen Poe to Vincent Van Gogh, there’s a certain narrative of tortured brilliance that we’ve become accustomed to. It’s rare, however, that the story begins with a box of undeveloped negatives going up for auction.
Finding Vivian Maier uncovers the life of one of America’s great unheralded street photographers, a French émigré whose work has since drawn comparisons with the likes of Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, but who worked as a nanny for more than forty years and died in relative poverty at the age of 83.
John Maloof, who purchased the box at auction and went onto acquire the majority of Maier’s work – including hundreds of rolls of film, audio tapes, home movies – guides us through his investigation into Maier, interviewing those who knew her best, and the complexities that made up her existence.
Through the lens of her work, most memorably her deeply humanist, of-the-moment portraits of Chicago natives, the documentary uncovers a deeply eccentric, solitary woman, a fantasist, a hoarder, fiercely independent, remembered by those she cared for with equal measures of affection and terror.
While Maier herself is recalled as a curious mixture of Willy Wonka and Miss Trunchbull (and yes, maybe a touch of foreboding Mary Poppins), Finding Vivian Maier is a gentle, non-judgmental experience, neither a gloss nor a hatchet job, but open and honest about the flaws and imperfections of its focus.
The film succeeds, though because it reconciles its posthumous investigation into a the personal life of a deeply private individual with the public desire to know more. Its soaring, Silverstri-like soundtrack aside, Finding Vivian Maier is all about the work, a monument to its subject’s prodigious output; long may it endure.