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‘Finding Vivian Maier’: Documentary enlarges the photographer’s story

A self-portrait very private Chicago photographer appears documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.” |  The MaloCollection

A self-portrait of the very private Chicago photographer appears in the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.” | The Maloof Collection

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Sundance Selects presents a documentary written and directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Running time: 83 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and Landmark Renaissance Highland Park.

Updated: May 5, 2014 7:58AM

One of the more interesting stories to come out of Chicago in recent years is that of Vivian Maier, the eccentric nanny and street photographer whose images are now seen in galleries around the world thanks to John Maloof, the Chicago man who brought Maier out of the shadows.

Maloof now caps this unusual journey with a fascinating and touching documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” Co-directed with Charlie Siskel (nephew of film critic Gene Siskel), the film broadens our understanding of the very private Maier, whose photographs have drawn comparisons to Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and Robert Frank.

The journey began back in 2007 when Maloof acquired a box of old photo negatives at an estate auction. On camera, Maloof takes us through his attempts to find the person behind the photographs. It takes some good old-fashioned sleuthing, and eventually Maloof has 100,000 negatives and 2,700 roles of undeveloped film as well as other detritus of Maier’s pack-rat existence including clothes, audiotapes, 8 and 16 mm movies, receipts and bus tickets.

It’s a big puzzle that the filmmakers piece together in an intriguing and engrossing way. Because Maier was so private and peculiar, the filmmakers can’t uncover the exact truth behind her life (no one can say for sure why she did what she did), but they do a fine job of filling in the blanks as best they can.

Maier, who died in 2009 (Maloof comes across her obit too late) and never really showed her photographs to anyone, was a peculiar figure outfitted in big coats, felt hats and clunky boots with an ever-present camera hanging around her neck. She cared for the children of a handful of families along the North Shore. Many are interviewed, and memories range from happy summer days to being force-fed by Maier or dragged to the slums or stockyards on photographic field trips.

Maier’s stunning images speak for themselves and perhaps are the key to her personality. Testifying to the quality of Maier’s work are esteemed photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz, who concludes she was “a watchful, observant, caring person” alert to the feelings of her subjects.

We all hope our legacy lives on after we are gone. Maier did not have children or wealth, but she did document her view of the world around her. And whether she realized it or not, those glorious photographs are her legacy, one that will live on for generations to come.

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