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'Finding Vivian Maier' review: Fascinating

Vivian Maier self-portrait.

Vivian Maier self-portrait. Credit: Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection

Burning issues of class, sex and childhood trauma are stoked by "Finding Vivian Maier," an investigative documentary that not only fails to provide a lot of answers, but doesn't raise some pretty obvious questions. Still, the story is captivating: How and why did a woman as gifted as Maier -- now recognized as one of the late-20th century's great street photographers -- labor so long in such isolation and anonymity, snapping her pictures while taking care of other people's children?

Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel do a lot with what they have -- but they also had a lot to work with. Maier was a pack rat who, even in retirement, kept up payments on a storage locker where she kept many of her belongings. When she stopped paying, the contents were auctioned off, and in 2007 Maloof bought it all for a few hundred dollars. He found thousands of negatives and rolls of undeveloped film -- the stuff of a major photographic career. He tried to find Maier but couldn't. She died in 2009, still unknown.

In attempting to crack the code of Vivian Maier, Maloof and Siskel make first-rate use of her own work, talking to the now-adult children whom Maier helped raise during her long career as a nanny, mostly in Chicago. Maier is remembered vividly by everyone -- as an eccentric and an extremely private person, one who, nevertheless, could talk people on the street into posing for her spontaneous yet vividly emotional portraits.

Despite a rigorous examination of the available evidence, the filmmakers don't solve the "riddle" -- if that's what it is -- of why a woman so gifted and obsessed with photography made so little effort to show her photographs. More puzzling: Why no one ever asked to see them. Nowhere among the interviews do ex-employers or their son or daughter tell Maloof and Siskel they saw any shots, or bothered to inquire how the work was coming along. She was, after all, just the baby-sitter.

PLOT Documentary portrait of a woman recognized only in death as one of her era's major photographers.


BOTTOM LINE There are some holes in the story, but what's there is fascinating.

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