Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

Vivian Maier Street Photographer, The Vivian Maier Mystery, Finding Vivian Maier and A Photographer Found -- Review by Jim Martin

Finding VMVivian Maier was born on February 1, 1926 in New York City. Around the age of 25 or 26 she started taking photographs, about 100,000 or more pictures by the time she died on April 21, 2009, ninety-nine percent of which she never showed anyone. She worked as a Nanny and/or Housekeeper most of her life using her spare time to photograph in New York City, Chicago, a village in France, and on an eight-month world tour accompanied by her trusted twin-lens Rollie camera hanging from her neck. Her work was discovered two years before she died but she was unaware of it. It included documentary style photography, 8mm film and audio recordings.

Two years before she died, on April 21, 2009 in Chicago, storage lockers where she stored her work and other things were sold at auction for non-payment of the monthly fees. John Maloof bought boxes of negatives and went on to buy more boxes of negatives, undeveloped rolls of film, 8mm and 16mm movie film from other bidders later on. He discovered the inspired work of Vivian Maier and ultimately brought her photography to public attention.


Finding Vivian Maier Documentary. See trailer below.

There are currently two documentary films about Vivian Maier.  1) The Vivian Maier Mystery, fifty-three minutes, released in 2013 by BBC.   2) Oscar Nominated, Finding Vivian Maier, 84 minutes, released in 2013/14 by Sundance Selects, directed by John Maoof and Charlie Siskel.

Vivian Maier Mystery Documentary

Vivian Maier Mystery Documentary

In addition there are several books, two of which are: Vivian Maier – Street Photographer, published by powerHouse Books and edited by John Maloof. The second titled Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found also by John Maloof.  Vivian Maier – Street Photographer is a great representative collection and introduction to Maier’s work. The book allows you to see through her eyes and get to know her through her work with no distractions. Maier has a well-developed sense of composition, contrast and focus. With the twin-lens reflex camera hanging from her neck she looked down into the view finder and shot from about waist-high most of the time. While she did shoot many self-portraits, she took herself out of the rest of what she shot. It seems like most of the time the subjects are not aware of her being there. She photographed everywhere from rough urban slums to elite suburban settings where she worked. She shot children, groups of people, portraits, street scenes and events with a journalist’s eye. Much of her work would have looked at home in Life Magazine of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Vivian Maier had an eye for the ironic juxtaposition of people and their environment. For example a small boy standing on a wood frame looking into a very large box on a city sidewalk or a Father holding up his son’s leg to look at his shoe as the boy hangs on to him for balance looking uncomfortable. She also likes the light, texture and patterns seen in urban environments. Her portraits reveal something deeper than the faces of her subjects. Somehow she captures an intimate moment when someone’s personality pops up for a second. Her work demonstrates sensitivity to social and cultural aspects of what she shoots.

Vivian Maier – Street Photographer, © 2011 powerHouse Books and John Maloof – ISBN 978-1-57687-577-3


 The book Vivian Maier – A Photographer Found includes a larger number of photographs as well as writing about Vivian Maier by Marvin Heiferman, Edited by Howard Greenberg with a forward by Laura Lippman. John Maloof is the author. ISBN 978-0-06-230553-4 © 2014 John Maloof . This a large book with a good choice of both black and white and some color photographs by Vivian Maier. Both the forward and article in the book are well written introductions to Vivian Maier.

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Click to see more photographs.

Vivian Maier Website -Excellent series of photographs

The Vivian Maier Mystery Documentary and Finding Vivian Maier Documentary, each have something to offer anyone trying to discover who this talented photographic artist is and how she got that way.

At first Vivian Maier does appear to be something of a mystery, a mystery she surrounded herself with. Both documentaries, through interviews with the grown up children and clients she worked for, mention how little they really knew about her and how secretive she was. She would not discuss her family or anything personal usually. However, on one of the tapes she made interviewing a woman about her meeting Rudolf Valentino, Vivian appears to do more talking than the interviewee including meeting she had with celebrities and her impressions of certain places she visited or lived in.colorhandsarms

The Finding Vivian Maier documentary is longer and more in-depth in certain areas than The Vivian Maier Mystery because it has John Maloof interviews and access to his huge collection of photographs, negatives, and film footage that Vivian Maier shot. The Vivian Maier Mystery spends a bit more time looking into Ms Maier’s time in France and tracing her family. It also interviews collectors other than John Maloof.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding Vivian Maier and her estate that consists only of the copyright ownership of her work. She died with no known relatives except for a couple of second cousins in France. Maloof was able to get a release to publish and print the photographs from one of the cousins. Another collector, Jeffrey Goldstein, with 17,500 photographs also believed he had cleared rights until Cook County in Illinois, in charge of Maier’s estate, sent letters out stating that no one had clear rights to distribute the work. Cook County was searching for Vivian Maier’s brother who no one had seen, who disappeared scores of years ago and was presumed dead. Although Maloof had gotten permission from a living relative, he had not cleared it through probate court, so his permission deemed was not legal. Articles on this subject at

Prices for prints of Vivian Maier’s work are still available and costly. Jeffery Goldstein sold his collection to a gallery in Canada. Other galleries and Maloof are still selling prints. Vivian Maier did not print much of her work. She had the film developed and saved the negatives. So prints of her work have a third-party involved. Dark room printing of photographs is part of the photographer’s art. The good news is that her composition and framing were pretty specific so printers may be able to focus on contrast and exposure issues.

Aside from all the controversy Vivian Maier is an important American photographer and artist. The documentaries and books show her amazing life and work. The mysterious part is why she didn’t seek some sort of exhibit or outlet for her work. It comes to light in reading the books and looking at the documentaries that at certain times she did try to show her work. For example she tried to negotiate a deal with a printer in France to make postcards from her pictures. Still she was secretive and didn’t push to show her work to anyone.sleepmanandwom

It is possible that Vivian Maier fancied herself as some sort of undercover photographer at certain times. She took on the role, and point-of-view of a photojournalist at times. She did interviews with people on her portable recorder on topical subjects like elections. She took pictures of celebrities and politicians. All her work is documentary in some form. Something in her personality prevented her from seeking employment as a photographer or seeking a wide audience for her work. If the postcards had been printed and sold, she would still be basically anonymous. Employers, their children and one or two friends all described Vivian as opinionated and at times argumentative or short-tempered. Although her work shows clearly that she had a sense of humor and progressive social tendencies.

Hopefully, when all the legal maneuvering is finished a traveling show of Vivian Maier’s work can be put together so that the world can see her work in person.

Review by James R Martin – Documentary Filmmaker, Author – Create Documentary Films, Videos and Multimedia

Trailer Finding Vivian Maier




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