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Lost story of Vivian Maier’s photos

Updated: May 22, 2014 6:16AM

The documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” suggests there are many fascinating stories percolating just under the surface of ordinary life. You just have to look. Vivian Maier looked.

The film, now showing in Chicago, tells the story of a nanny who lived and worked on Chicago’s suburban North Shore. In her spare time, she doubled as an uber-talented photographer.

The film is graced with the sensational products of Maier’s unlikely avocation. The narrator, filmmaker/photographer John Maloof, opens in 2007 as Maloof peruses film negatives stored in a cardboard box that he bought at an auction. The box was labeled, “Vivian Maier.” The images inside were astounding, and surely, Maloof thought, this talent must be known.

He Googles her name. Nothing comes up.

So Maloof set off on a riveting search to discover the life behind the eye of the secretive and seductive photographer. Maloof, who co-directed the film, interviewed dozens of people who knew Maier from the 1950s until 2009, when she died at 83, alone and destitute.

In her spare time, the nanny produced 100,000 images that she took during a half century, and stashed the negatives, prints and films in boxes, trunks and storage lockers.

Maier, he learns, was, as Winston Churchill once proclaimed of Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Now, Maloof is building an archive of her work, which has been embraced and shown worldwide. Her talent has made her an international celebrity.

Maier shot with a Rolleiflex camera, from the waist up, making direct eye contact with her subjects, capturing the candid, sorrowful and serene. Her portrayals glow like the luminous pearl that shines from Vermeer’s canvas, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Maier ventured everywhere and shot everything. People in the verdant parks of suburbia. People on the cracked pavements of Chicago and New York City. People from France to Florida.

Few big shots caught her eye. She portrayed the smallest and the least: children, the homeless, street hustlers, odd ducks.

Chicagoans will thrill to scenes of our city, poised mid-century, rising up like a jewel twinkling in the refracted gaze of its citizenry.

The film sends a shaft of bright light into the North Shore. Her photographs, and the film’s interviews with the families she worked for are revealing, sometimes unsettling. Some were cared for by Maier as children. Some said Maier, who never married and was childless, was gentle and generous. Others claimed she was volatile and cruel.

One thing is clear. They did not really know her. Until Maloof came around with his questions, Maier was just an eccentric au pair who liked to take pictures.

In these times, we fixate on the mirror. It’s all me, me, me. We want our 15 minutes of fame. What did I do today? What do I think? What did I eat?

We put it all out there, the mundane to the miraculous, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Our Google alerts track our path to fame and glory.

“Finding Vivian Maier” tells us that “The Most Interesting Man [or woman] in the World” could be someone we will never know.

Certainly not the man in the beer commercial.


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