Finding Vivian Maier

Apr 22, 2014

A first-rate and informative documentary about one of America's most accomplished but unknown street photographers.

Finding Vivian Maier

Grade: A

Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Screenplay: Maloof, Siskel

Cast: Vivian Maier, Maloof

Rating: NR

Runtime: 83 min.

by John DeSando

“She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. ... She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn't show anyone.” John Maloof

Finding Vivian Maier is one of those documentaries that make you happy you met artists you never heard of, in this case covert street photographer Vivian Maier and documentarians John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, who share Maier’s love of eccentric photographic detail.

Maier, a nanny who died in 2009, saved everything from subway receipts to over 100,000 negatives, which form the heart of an intriguing bio narrated by director John Maloof.  He resembles Jesse Eisenberg in look and nerdy enthusiasm.

After buying the negatives at auction, Maloof eventually shows the world the black and white candid snaps mostly shot in Chicago, many of interesting common folk whose eccentricity Maier unfailingly captures in compositions turning out to be uncommon. When Maloof confesses he’s “kind of compulsive with stuff,” it’s clear he identifies strongly with his pack-rat photographer.

That she had few if any friends except the kids she watched is no surprise; that she exaggerated her French connection down to an accent adds to her mystery; that she variously spelled her last name certifies how reclusive she would always be.

The  question underneath this enjoyable documentary is whether or not Maloof should be curator for someone whose only signal that she was a photographer was the Rolleiflex constantly hanging from her neck.  No one apparently saw the photos, nor did she  want anyone to see them. But if not for Maloof, none of us would enjoy the original photography that invokes Diane Arbus’s humanity and Lisette Model’s honesty.

“Never take a picture of anything you are not passionately interested in.” Lisette Model

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at