THE PHOTOGRAPHS in Finding Vivian Maier draw your curiosity immediately; the film attempts to frame them. Finding details the landmark uncovering of now-deceased photographer Vivian Maier's secret archives—more than 100,000 images that document the streets of New York, Chicago, South America, rural France, and beyond in the latter half of the 20th century with an arresting sense of timing, humanity, and melancholy. Her eye is the sort that can't be taught or bottled, an instinct that resembles a journalist's as much as a poet's. As an introduction to the mysterious artist who's arguably one of the most important street photographers of all time, Finding is fantastic, if its motives are questionable at times.
The fundamental eyebrow-raise comes from the fact that filmmaker John Maloof, who co-directed the film with Charlie Siskel and features in it prominently, was the one who discovered Maier after acquiring her negatives at a neighborhood auction. Struck by their evident skill, Maloof began making inquiries, eventually coming into possession of her full body of work, including audio recordings, videos, and other bits of documentation Maier obsessively collected. Since Maier has no heir to speak of, Maloof stands to profit from the proliferation of her work, creating an inherent conflict of interest.
On the other hand, part of the appeal of Maier's lore is her lifelong obscurity and intentionally obfuscated origins, and the fact that her discoverer is a kindred spirit of sorts—compulsively sorting her ephemera, pursuing what few clues she left—is a story worth telling on its own.
Maloof and his film never quite get to the heart of Maier's identity, though its final chapters take a turn into evidence of a considerable dark side to her personality. One gets the sense she would be severely displeased by the exposure, if relieved that her life's accomplishments could be justifiably honored without her having to live to bear the spotlight.