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Documentary makers try to put Vivian Maier in sharper focus

A man rides horse New York City Vivian Maier phoincluded 'Finding Vivian Maier.' |  Vivian Maier courtesy MaloCollection

A man rides a horse in New York City in a Vivian Maier photo included in "Finding Vivian Maier." | Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection

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of the shadows’

When: Through Sept. 28

Where: Ninth floor, Harold
Washington Library Center,
400 S. State

Admission: Free

Info: (312) 747-4050;


When: Through the summer

Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark

Admission: Free with regular
$15 admission

Info: (312) 642-4600;

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Updated: April 3, 2014 1:42PM

Jeff Garlin has received hundreds of ideas for documentaries, sitcoms and other projects, and the famed Chicago-born comedian, actor, director and producer has turned down nearly all of them.

But when he learned about Vivian Maier, an unknown street photographer who posthumously gained international attention after a trove of her images was discovered by chance at an auction in 2007, he was convinced her story would make a compelling film. So he proposed the idea to John Maloof, who inadvertently became the guardian of her legacy and had already taken the first steps toward just such a project.

“To me,” Garlin said, “the two things that stood out were the quality of the work, which I was blown away by, and John’s story. So, I contacted him and said, ‘Do you want to make a documentary?’ I said, ‘If you let me produce it, I don’t want anything. I’ll stay in the background, and I’ll help you put it together, and this will get made.’ ”

“Finding Vivian Maier,” the resulting 83-minute documentary that opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and Landmark Renaissance Highland Park,
tells the intriguing story of this odd, eccentric yet ever-intrepid artist who never exhibited her photography in her lifetime and even left hundreds of rolls of film undeveloped.

“You can just look at the photos on the wall or in a book, but everybody wants to know who took the photos,” said Maloof. “Her life was important to help people understand the work and why she made it. And, also, the story behind her is so addictingly interesting that I got obsessed about unraveling it.”

The film also chronicles Maloof’s purchase of a box of her photographs at a North Side auction in 2007, and his tireless efforts since to consolidate and preserve her images and other archival materials and spread the word about her accomplishments. Her photographs can be seen in two local exhibitions, at the Harold Washington Library Center and the Chicago History Museum.

Maier (1926-2009), an American of French and Austro-Hungarian descent, learned photography while living in France in 1949 and pursued it avidly into the late 1990s, producing some 100,000 images. Though her subject matter was varied, she is best known for probing street photographs of often inauspicious, everyday people.

To support herself, she worked as a nanny, first in New York and later Chicago, where she moved around 1956. Many members of the families she worked for, including some of the now-grown children she cared for, are interviewed in the film.

Because Maloof had no film background, Garlin teamed him with Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Charlie Siskel, and they shared the duties of producer and director. Siskel was quickly taken with what
he called the “great detective story” of piecing together Maier’s double life.

Some people would love to see an exhaustive biography of the photographer, Siskel said, but that was not the intent of the filmmakers. “She certainly wouldn’t have wanted every corner of her life explored and exposed,” she said. “And that was never the goal of our film. The film was meant to explore this work and this life in an artful way, just as her photography is artful.”

‘THE VIVIAN MAIER MYSTERY’: Another documentary about the photographer will be shown at 6 p.m. April 24 in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium Theater at the Harold Washington Library Center, which is hosting an exhibition of Maier’s photos. Admission is free. “The Vivian Maier Mystery” is a BBC production.

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