Finding Vivian Maier Opens Fri., April 11 at Seven Gables. Not rated.

Finding Vivian Maier

Opens Fri., April 11 at Seven Gables. 
Not rated. 83 minutes.

The biggest discovery of 20th-century photography was made in 2007 by Chicago flea-market maven/historian John Maloof. Vivian Maier was a nanny who died soon thereafter, indigent and mentally ill, a hoarder. Maloof bought trunks of her negatives with no idea what they contained. The revelation of those images, in a series of art shows—including at Photo Center NW last year—and books, immediately placed her in the front rank of street photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. But who the hell was she?

Now Maloof and Charlie Siskel have directed a kind of documentary detective story about the enigmatic spinster (1926–2009). It’s an irresistible quest, as Maloof interviews the now-grown kids Maier cared for, plus a few fleeting friends and acquaintances, who had no idea of her gifts. I don’t want to spoil the sleuthing in this sad, intriguing movie, which also functions as a sales reel for more books and shows to follow from a massive archive that’s still being indexed and printed. Maloof has become a one-man industry on Maier’s posthumous behalf: curator, champion, and businessman. Maier’s prints are selling in a way those of the tired icons of the last century are not; she’s trendy not just because of her eye—excellent, with many new (to me) images included here—but because of her mystery.

That’s where, despite the film’s art-history appeal, I part ways with Maloof. Do we really need to know an artist—Frank, Winogrand, Diane Arbus, whomever—to appreciate their work? Why must there always be psychology on the other side of the lens? Maier was almost pathologically secretive (“sort of a spy,” she said), but all photographers hide behind the camera. Would she have wanted her images seen by the public? Maloof conclusively answers that question. Would she have wanted his movie to be made? All her grown charges say the same: No.