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Robrt Pela: Review of 'Finding Vivian Maier'

Five years after her death, Vivian Maier is a superstar. An art world darling who might very well, were she alive, appreciate the attention her gorgeous portraiture is receiving.  And who would likely not, if the secrecy with which she lived her life is any indication, be thrilled about our interest in her mysterious past. 

Maier is the former nanny whose photographic genius was discovered in several storage lockers in Chicago in 2007. More than 150,000 images, most unprinted, were auctioned off as detritus to thee different second-hand dealers, each of whom recognized the value of - and the beauty in- Maier’s work. 

In one photograph, a toothless man leers drunkenly into Maier’s lens, her shadow deliberately obscuring half his face.  In another, a neatly-dressed child peers longingly in to a box of rubbish. Still another portrait captures only the hands of a man and woman, clinging to one another on a Chicago curb. 

Maier’s stunning photography is getting the attention it very much deserves But so, too, is her personal life – or what little her biographers have been able to uncover of it anyway.   

Her life and work, both entirely unknown only a few years ago, are the subject of a pair of prize-winning documentaries.  A 2013 BBC documentary distributed in the U.S. under the title The Vivian Maier Mystery, and John Maloof’s theatrical Finding Vivian Maier

While the Maloof documentary and much of the rest of the extensive coverage of Maier casts her as a mysterious Mary Poppins with a camera, none of it acknowledges the profound irony of Maier’s life and work. She, a woman who lived as an enigma, refusing to discuss her past with anyone who knew her, took uncompromising and sometimes brazen disregard for her subjects’ privacy. Many of her subjects were poor; often she chose the disheveled, the addled elderly, or crying children as her subjects. Few, it’s clear, are posing for Maier’s Rolleiflex.  She simply barged into their lives for a moment, and then moved on.

It’s a fascinating dichotomy that raises all kinds of ethical questions, but most of her biographers prefer to cast Maier as a mysterious woman no one really knew.

We may not know who owns which photographs, or much about the woman who took them. But neither do we know anything about the tens of thousands of people Vivian Maier photographed over more than half a century.  In the end, hers is really only one more beautiful stranger’s face.

Robrt Pela’s reviews and essays appear in the Phoenix New Times . The documentary Finding Vivian Maier is playing now at the Harkins Shea.