Vivian Maier took thousands of riveting pictures of urban life. But she died without ever showing anyone.

What if you spent your life creating a body of brilliant artwork — and nobody saw it until after your death?

That's one of the many questions behind Finding Vivian Maier, the riveting new documentary by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.

Maier's story has emerged gradually over the past seven years, ever since Maloof, looking for archival photos of Chicago for a book project, bought a box of her negatives at an auction house for about $400.

When Maloof looked through the images he had purchased, he didn't see anything that he could use for that project. What he found instead was the beginning of a life-changing discovery: a trove of stunning pictures taken on the streets of Chicago in the 1960s, showing children and homeless people and housewives and workers. The photos capture individual moments of human experience with an assurance reminiscent of the great street photographers of the 20th century, such as Robert Frank and Helen Levitt.

The woman who took these pictures, Maloof discovered, was named Vivian Maier. She was never known as a photographer. Instead, she worked most of her adult life as a nanny for well-to-do families in Chicago, and died in poverty in 2009, saved from homelessness only by the support of some of the grown children she had once cared for.

Everyone who met Maier over the years knew that she took her camera (a Rolleiflex) everywhere she went, but few people ever saw the pictures that she made.

The more he found out about her, the more Maloof wanted to know about this mysterious woman, who often took self-portraits of her intelligent, resolute face reflected in mirrors and shop windows. He located more of her negatives, packed in unassuming brown boxes, and bought them up. He rescued personal detritus from a storage unit—felt hats, receipts, shows, newspaper clippings, audio tapes, thousands of pictures, and hundreds of rolls of film, never developed. The final count of photos in his possession is somewhere around 150,000.

Photos by Vivian Maier. Clockwise from top left: October 31, 1954. New York, NY; 1955. New York, NY; Chicago; November 1953. New York, NY. © Maloof Collection/Vivian Maier - Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

Maloof was hooked. He gave up his fledgling career in real estate and devoted all his time to following the clues he found. Ultimately he put together this film to tell the strange, contradictory, poignant story he uncovered.

The movie creates a portrait of an eccentric woman who chose nannying because it allowed her to be out and about. We hear stories from the now-grown children she cared for of being taken into the slums and stockyards of Chicago so that she could shoot the scenes she found there. We meet some of the parents who employed her, and let her go because her odd habits and explosive moods made her impossible to live with. We hear from one woman who considered her a true friend, but who never knew where Maier was born or the truth about her background. A picture emerges of a strange and lonely woman, emotionally intelligent yet forever apart from the common human life she observed so keenly. Some of the revelations uncovered by Maloof, such as the location of her family’s original home (no spoilers), are lovely and picturesque. Others are deeply disturbing.

Throughout the movie, we are seeing the world through Maier’s eyes, as Maloof and co-director Siskel incorporate dozens of her pictures and film footage with the interviews they conducted. We even hear Maier’s voice, recorded by herself on cassette tapes. We see the rooms where she used to live, the clothes she used to wear, her handwriting, her costume jewelry, her shoes – all the most intimate ephemera of her life. And yet we never feel like we fully understand who Vivian Maier was.

Street photos shot by Maier in Kochi, India (left) and Canada (right). © Maloof Collection/Vivian Maier - Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

In the years since he first discovered her work, Maloof has mounted several exhibitions of Maier’s pictures and fought to have her recognized as a photographer who deserves to rank along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, and the like (a recognition which would benefit him, as the owner of the majority of her work). So far, despite recognition from fellow photographers, that part of his quest has been quixotic, in part because she never printed her own pictures and so failed to demonstrate mastery of one part of the photographer's craft. Still, the shows of her photographs have drawn huge crowds around the world. And while interest in her work may be intensified because of the story behind it, it’s impossible to deny that these images were captured by someone who had a natural genius for the medium, and a fearless approach to the life of the street that can't be taught.

Maier guarded her privacy so carefully that Maloof at times questions if he is doing the right thing by bringing her work to light. As a viewer, you can only be glad that he did. We may never understand why Vivian Maier lived the way she did. The art she created deserves its own life.

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