Part biography, part mystery, John Maloof’s compelling documentary on hitherto unknown photographer Vivian Maier is as magical as it is enthralling. It tells the story of Maloof’s discovery of a treasure trove of photographs, negatives and undeveloped rolls of film which leads him to uncover the remarkable life and work of Vivian Maier, who in addition to being a nanny was also a talented and accomplished photographer.
Told largely through talking-head interviews of those who knew her when she was alive, linked with narration by Maloof himself, it manages to convey much of the apparently complex and idiosyncratic way Vivian lived her life and interacted with the world around her. There’s a bittersweet irony that her posthumous acclaim has, in part, been achieved through the use of various social media and photo sharing sites when you get the sense that, given she was hardly a keen socialiser in person, she would have disapproved most strongly of its electronic incarnation.
Maloof and his co-writer/producer/director Charlie (nephew of Gene) Siskel neatly combine the present-day tale of the discovery, examination and curation of her body of work with a gently forensic reconstruction of her life and times nannying to Chicago families across a career spanning five decades, with many of the interviewees the now-grown children she used to care for. Although much of her early life remains a mystery, the film doesn’t shy away from less fond remembrances of her from some of the children although it doesn’t dwell on them either.
The remaining air of mystery gives her life story a frisson of the fantastical, easily calling to mind iconic fictional nannies such as Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. Her legacy of the children whom she helped raise and her amazing eye for a photo makes for an enchanting film to watch and the only frustrating aspect is that so much will remain unknown about this fascinating artist.