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Finding Vivian Maier

About a week ago I got a text from my girl Casey asking if I wanted to see the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" at Cinema 21, an awesome old theater in Northwest Portland. Before replying, I had to google Vivian Maier.

I remembered the story years ago, and her photographs, which had been purchased almost by accident. Stories online of the amazing images captured by an anonymous Chicago nanny. Remembering the inspiration I'd found in those images, of course I met up with Casey and her crew to find out more.

There will be spoilers ahead as I discuss the film, so skip the rest if you don't want anything revealed.

A young man named John Maloof randomly purchased a box of negatives at an auction house, and after some time took a look at them, and found them to be quite extraordinary. There were thousands of photos, mostly of people on the streets of Chicago. The photos are beautifully composed, artfully shot, and, for the most part, were never printed by the photographer. Maloof knew he had found a valuable cache, and began to wonder about the anonymous woman behind the camera. With only her name (which turned up nothing when searched) and some pre-area code phone numbers to go on, Maloof began to chase any lead, eventually dialing a household and finding that Maier had been a career nanny, who lived with a camera around her neck.

The film follows Maloof as he examines her possessions, interviews her former employers, charges, and acquaintances, and tries to piece together an idea of who Maier was and why she felt so compelled to take so many photographs she'd never print. The movie takes a slightly dark turn as her "quirky" behavior skews to mentally ill and at times abusive, both emotionally and physically. She collected newspaper clippings about violent crimesWe never learn what made her this way- abuse or violence in her youth is suggested, but her story is mostly built from other's recollections, and she hardly spoke of herself or her childhood. She spoke in a French accent though she was from New York, she used aliases regularly, and told one man she was a spy. She did not want us to know her.

And that brought a different kind of darkness to the film- while her work is an amazing testament to the past decades and humanity in general, Maier did not want people to know her name. How would she feel about a documentary about her life being made? Some say since it was posthumous it's alright to expose her curious life to the world. I felt like I was intruding on her, and like Maloof was profiting off of that intrusion.

All in all, an interesting film, but one that left me more disturbed than inspired. This may be a case of me being too empathetic for my own good.

For inspiration, I recommend looking at her work instead.

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