Writers: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Running Time: 84mins
The lowdown: Debut directors Charlie Siskel (producer of Bowling For Columbine, Religulous) and John Maloof offer up this tantalising tale of a private and austere nanny, now posthumously recognized as an acclaimed street photographer whose work is exhibited internationally. Their fascinating documentary is an excellent place to start searching for the truth surrounding the secretive shutterbug.
The full verdict: It’s almost inconceivable in these days of self-promotion and social media showboating that someone with obvious talent would conceal it from the world. Vivian Maier took 150,000 photographs over a period of 40 years and managed to hide the evidence until her death in 2009.
By chance, writer and collector John Maloof attended an auction looking for historical prints and bought her film rolls and negatives. Turning to the internet to validate the images, he discovered that not only were they of exemplary quality but the first-rate photographer was impervious to search engines.
His curiosity piqued, he set about investigating the mystery woman, with surprising results.
Although comprising mainly of talking heads from acquaintances, critics and the families Maier worked for, this format avoids monotony due to the lively contributors whose reminiscences and theories are frank and funny.
Accounts of Maier differ dramatically as childhood memories clash. She is described taking to the streets of Chicago with her charges like “a real, live Mary Poppins” but the slums she visited to snap the poor and destitute were no place for children.
Maloof may be Maier’s curator and champion but he doesn’t flinch in highlighting the darker side of his discovery or her mental stability.
Recollections are interspersed with Maier’s 8mm homemade films and complemented by Academy Award nominee J T Ralph’s (Man on A Wire) perky, minimal score.
Maier was also the subject of a recent, shorter BBC produced documentary, Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? (released in the US as The Mystery of Vivian Maier), but the focus there was on analysing her work rather than uncovering her origins.
In-depth knowledge of street photography or camera apparatus is not necessary to appreciate the stunning examples of Maier’s work on display here.
There are many possibilities proffered to explain Maier’s paradoxical personality. Ultimately it’s left for us to draw our own conclusions and to enjoy the extraordinary images she may never have wanted us to see.