'Finding Vivian Maier' rewarding and puzzling

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If you love photography -- or a good mystery or fodder for debate -- "Finding Vivian Maier" is a must-see movie.

The documentary charts what happened after John Maloof forked over $380 at an auction for a box stuffed with old negatives. He was writing a history book on his Chicago neighborhood and gambled on finding some photos to illustrate the text.

'Finding Vivian Maier'

Rating: No MPAA rating but PG-13   in nature.

Instead, he discovered the then-unseen, unpublished and unheralded work of Vivian Maier, a nanny who died in 2009.

Thanks to Mr. Maloof's detective work and determination to turn negatives into framed prints or digital images for the world to see, Maier is now considered one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century, a woman who left behind more than 100,000 negatives and slides with some rolls of color film still undeveloped.

Whether capturing socialites in mink, down-and-outers in a doorway or a boy in a hat with Mickey Mouse ears, the shooter worked photographic magic with her twin-lens Rolleiflex, one of her cameras of choice. Quieter than most, the Rolleiflex wasn't raised to the eye but held near the waist, as the photographer looked down into the viewfinder.

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, whose work has been showcased in 18 books and whose subjects have included Mother Teresa, sums up Maier's work this way: "She had it all." A great eye, ability to frame her subjects perfectly, excellent use of light and environment, a sense of humor and of tragedy and a winning way with children.

But when Mr. Maloof bought the negatives he knew nothing about Maier. The documentary details his efforts to bring her into focus through interviews with onetime charges to whom she was nanny or governess, former employers (including, for less than a year, Phil Donahue), a shopkeeper who called her "a pain in the neck" and a friend who speculates Maier would view the film as an intrusion.

"She would never let this happen had she known about it."

Is Mr. Maloof violating a dead woman's privacy? Why didn't she want the world to see her pictures while she was alive? Was the thrill in taking the photo and hoarding the negatives, along with so many other possessions that the floor of her living quarters bowed?

Even with all the sleuthing, some blanks are not filled in and some questions not answered on screen by the directors-producers, Mr. Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Some holes were filled in by reading the backgrounder at, which also has lots of other information and photo portfolios.

When word about Maier started to surface, one newspaper headline proclaimed, "Secret shooter a real-life Mary Poppins." As we know from "Saving Mr. Banks," the woman behind the Disney heroine wasn't as sweet as a spoonful of sugar and neither (always) was Maier, who took children into sketchy areas so she could take pictures.

As for those pictures, though, they are a spectacular legacy, regardless of whether she intended for them to be seen and admired.

Opens today at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

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