Finding Vivian Maier Doesn't Quite Capture Its Elusive Subject

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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, for those who've missed her story, 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 three different second-hand dealers, each of whom recognized the value of -- and beauty in -- Maier's work.

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Her composition and choice of subject are striking. 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 into a box of rubbish. Still another portrait captures only the hands of a man and woman, clinging to one another on a Chicago curb. A nattily dressed cabby naps in the cab of his car, his hat dangling from the steering column.

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, playing now at Harkins Shea Cinema). Her photography is seen today in an ongoing series of international gallery shows and a museum tour that will plow through Europe into next year. A trio of art books has collected her stunning street portraits.

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.

Born in New York in 1926, Maier lived much of her childhood in France. In America, she worked as a nanny, in Manhattan and -- during the last 53 years of her life -- in Chicago. She began photographing people at an early age, choosing in the early 1950s the Rolleiflex camera. She roamed the streets of New York and Chicago, sometimes choosing tranquil suburbs but more often heading into seedier parts of town, where she shot striking street portraits of dowagers, the homeless, children, and inebriated men passed out on sidewalks and benches. With her young charges in tow, she shot more than 150,000 pictures, most of them Maier never printed. Many rolls of film weren't ever developed. Maier died in 2009 at 83.

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, 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.

I have other quibbles with the Maloof film, most of them journalistic. Maloof is a central character in his film, and I'm discouraged that he deliberately avoids telling us that there are two other Maier dealers; that the ownership of her work is divided -- a fact made plain in the British documentary.

We may not know who owns which photographs, or much about the woman who took them. But nor 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.

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