“Finding Vivian Maier,” a riveting documentary about a nanny who snapped more than 100,000 photos of Chicago street scenes but never exhibited them, arrives at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Friday, May 2. It illustrates the maxim that truth is often stranger than fiction.
New York City-born Vivian Maier spent much of her childhood in France, settling in Chicago during the 1950s and working there as a nanny for 40 years. If Chicago realtor and historian John Maloof had not purchased a cache of Ms. Maier’s photos at auction, it’s entirely possible that this talented photographer might never have been discovered. She has gone on to become an important figure in the history of American photography.
Mr. Maloof was, at the time, searching for photos of Chicago’s northwest neighborhood to include in a book he planned to write. He packed the Maier photos away until he finished the book, “Portage Park.” After studying photography and becoming a photographer himself, he returned to the Maier stash of photography and became obsessed with the reclusive woman who had become an accomplished street photographer without ever exhibiting her work.
Working like a detective, Mr. Maloof gradually uncovered the names of the families Ms. Maier worked for and began interviewing them. He managed to salvage many of the nanny’s belongings from storage lockers one of the families was about to empty. Not only did Mr. Maloof uncover photo prints, undeveloped rolls of film and negatives, but he also found the extensive collection of newspaper stories, stacks of mail, home movies, audio tapes, and the found objects of a woman who was obviously a pack rat.
Once Mr. Maloof began posting Maier images on websites, an audience for the nanny’s work quickly developed. Members of the families for whom Ms. Maier worked filled in details about her background, life, and peculiarities. She was a woman who loved children and often took her charges on unexpected adventures, like a trip to Chicago’s stockyard, where sheep and cattle were kept before slaughter. She had a dark side, in one case force-feeding one of the children she cared for when the girl refused to finish the food on her plate.
The 84-minute film that John Maloof has produced in collaboration with Charlie Siskel is a remarkable artifact of Vivian Maier’s life and work. Narratively compelling, it is also finely crafted, making nuanced statements about celebrity, artistic talent, and inspiration that take it well beyond the realm of biography. The range of subjects Ms. Maier captured on film is extraordinary and compelling, and Mr. Maloof devotes much of his documentary to exploring her work. Viewers will enjoy “Finding Vivian Maier” as a fascinating, haunting, and compelling story, as well as an insightful commentary on American culture and values.
Also opening this weekend are “Particle Fever,” a documentary by physicist Mark Levinson about the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, with pre-screening cosmic libations and bites. The latest entry in the N.Y. Film Critics preview series, “CHEF,” about the opening of a food truck and starring Dustin Hoffman, Jon Favreau, and John Leguizamo, is also playing.
“Finding Vivian Maier,” Friday, May 2, Saturday, May 3, and Sunday, May 4, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 ages 14 and under. For tickets and more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.