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Documentary Discovery: Finding Vivian Maier

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What we know about Vivian Maier is this: born in New York, occasional resident of France, nanny in Chicago, wore men’s clothing, took many thousands of photographs with her twin-lens Rolleiflex, which she wore around her neck—always.

That is all.

The photographs turned up in 2007, two years before Maier’s death in 2009, in a box of negatives sold at auction to amateur historian John Maloof. He eventually found more than 100,000 negatives and 2,700 roles of undeveloped film. Recognizing that, these days, one must have an artist to go with the art, Maloof set out to find the mysterious photographer’s identity, a quest documented in his cinematic tribute Finding Vivian Maier.

Maier’s street scenes and portraits echo the work of such greats as Diane Arbus, Weegee and Lisette Model, and the discovery has prompted a movement to place her in the pantheon. In the film, interviews with her former charges and employers make much of her eccentricities, bulky coats and fiercely defended privacy. It is a tragedy, they conclude, that her oddness kept her from fame.

But the artist and those calling for her recognition are working at crossed purposes. We are captivated by Maier; she was captivated by the world and all of its idiosyncrasies, humor and confusion. She saw the richness in paradox—image and identity, pleasure and poverty, humor and tragedy—with endearing frankness, and her images (including her self-portraits, one of which is pictured here) are striking : A poor man enjoying a sandwich. A child in a tutu, wandering Chicago at night. A woman sunbathing.

“I‘m sort of a spy,” one man recalls her saying. But if her guileless photographs and brief, luminous films were acts of espionage, she worked on behalf of a country she invented—one in which she could be both caretaker and artist, ambitious and uninterested in acknowledgement. Maloof and the rest are right: Maier can teach us a thing or two about where to look for artistry and delight. Now showing at IFC Center; 323 Sixth Ave.; ifccenter.com.

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