An Electrifying Detective Story


[All photo credits:Vivian Maier from the Maloof Collection.]

I’ve said it before that I am prone to hyperbole, but there is something about the documentary Finding Vivian Maier that makes me want to jump up and down and scream about it until every single person I know sees it.  In 2007 a young historian buys an auction lot of 30,000 photo negatives that he hopes will provide some illustrations for a book he is writing about his Chicago neighborhood. He doesn’t find anything for his book, but he does find an artist and a thoroughly compelling mystery.

One does not have to be a mystery lover, a history buff, or a photography expert to fall in love with this story. But if you are one or more of those things, it is possible your head may explode. Here’s what happens: John Maloof buys a bunch of negatives at an auction. He discovers that the images are unexpectedly good, museum-grade, photos. He knows nothing about the photographer–only knows her name, can’t find even a whisper about her online. When he does track down information about her, he finds out she spent her life working as a nanny and never showed her photos to anyone. He also discovers that Vivian was more complex and darker than she seems at first.

I will say no more about plot and I deliberately left out details so I won’t give too many surprises away. Maloof reveals Maier’s story quite masterfully, setting up the mystery, taking us along on the investigation, and revealing the woman behind (and some times in front of) the camera. And it is an amazing story. It has the feel of a novel and it is ripe with possibilities for a novelist.

What will also be attractive to book lovers is the fact that there is so much in the film that will make the detective/historian/archivist in you tingle with excitement. After Maloof tracks down some people who knew Maier, he helps them clean out a storage unit that belonged to her. In the process, he ends up with thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, letters, receipts, tickets, clothing, hats, shoes, and hundreds of other things that help him unravel the mystery. In the film, Maloof lays out all the artifacts on the floor. It’s almost like he went to a store and bought a life/mystery in a box. A sort of life-sized game or kit that gave him just enough information and material to get him started but left big holes in the story for him to fill in.


This film appealed to me on so many levels. It reminds me of a few mysteries I have tracked down myself, but in much less spectacular ways. The time I tracked down the life of book cover illustrator Jackie Shulman and gave her a digital footprint that was all but non-existent previously. Then there was my 20-year effort to find the 1960s folk group The Womenfolk. The book I got to research and write about a 160-year old insane asylum. Playing around on You get the picture. I love that kind of mystery. Is it any wonder this film made me a little delirious?


They’ve recently added it to Netflix streaming which is how I came across it. The film came out in 2013 and was nominated for an Academy Award. As usual I am right on top of things.


23 thoughts on “An Electrifying Detective Story

  1. Su March 6, 2016 / 9:33 am

    Glad I’m a Netflix user. Going after it right now.


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:50 am

      The only reason I found was because Netflix had it in the first position on their newly added section.


  2. Jane Mackay March 6, 2016 / 11:23 am

    Shortly after seeing ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ in January last year we were visiting our daughter in New York and she suggested a visit to the Photographers Gallery where they had an exhibition of Vivian Maier’s photographs. Our daughter had never heard of Vivian Maier, but was bowled over by the quality of her work as we were, although I’m afraid none of us could afford to buy one of her prints. Anyway, nobody I know has seen the film so I was thrilled to see your review … I might have guessed anyone with the right idea about Trollope would share some of my other enthusiasms.
    Thanks for a great review.


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:51 am

      It would be interesting to see her works in print.


  3. Nadia March 6, 2016 / 12:34 pm

    I’ve heard so much about this film, but have yet to see it. Sounds like I need to change that ASAP! I love the photos you included in this post and I love your enthusiasm for this film. Definitely makes me want to see it even more. Thanks so much!!


  4. Laura C March 6, 2016 / 1:59 pm

    Wow! This sounds very interesting, I will have to watch it. This reminds me of the documentary Stone Reader about tracking down the author Dow Mossman “The Stones of Summer.” Have you seen it? I saw it about 6 or 7 years ago and was fascinated. I have not read the book though. Maybe I should try it.


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:52 am

      That is all new to me. I will have to investigate.


  5. Terra March 6, 2016 / 4:21 pm

    I will look for this film, it sounds brilliant and with the flavor of a mystery around this woman.


  6. Christy March 6, 2016 / 5:37 pm

    I remember reading an article, maybe a longform essay or something about her, and I remember it was completely fascinating. Glad to know the film has hit Netflix streaming – your post reminds me that I’ve been meaning to watch this.


  7. Simon T March 6, 2016 / 6:49 pm

    I’ve been meaning to watch this ever since I read an article when it came out and STILL haven’t. I got super into documentaries last summer, but it seems to have waned a bit – but I’m sure I could be persuaded back for this. (My favourite is ‘Life in a Day’, which I heartily recommend.)


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:55 am

      I think you will be fascinated by how she takes everyday images and makes them something so powerful. Makes me think how much deep stuff is going on around us if we only noticed it.


  8. Nan March 6, 2016 / 8:53 pm

    I agree. It was an excellent film. SO very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Joan Kyler March 7, 2016 / 8:11 am

    I can usually depend on my friend Dean in Boston to steer me to interesting books, films, and music. He was right on the money with this one. Like you, I was fascinated and wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. Her photos are stunning. They grab the humanity of their subjects. Awesome, in the true sense of that overused word.


  10. quinn March 7, 2016 / 9:36 am

    Have seen the film and then took a few bks from library w/ her prints and story. Truly amazing all around from any angle as u say. The quality of her work from a tech pov is outstanding, yes she had amazing talent for seeing and framing, but to achieve the quality of print, working under the cost etc restrictions is astounding.
    U have printed here a few pix i hadn’t seen yet…and love…like the nuns pix…awesome
    Thanks as always for your good taste.


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:57 am

      It’s also amazing that she was so good at what she did but with little to go on other than her negatives as feedback. It doesn’t seem like she got much printed. But maybe all photographers rely on their negatives in ways an average user wouldn’t.


  11. Geoff W March 7, 2016 / 2:10 pm

    I’m so glad you found this and enjoyed it! I got to see a screening of it in 2014 I think and it was phenomenal. I’ve been in love with her work since the discovery first started making the rounds on the art/photo blogs! I can’t wait to re-watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. biggardenblog March 7, 2016 / 5:54 pm

    I read about her a year or two ago – knew nothing about this film. I hope to get to see it, as it is such a great story. But best of all would be to have a great book of her photos.


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:58 am

      I’m not sure how I missed hearing about the film or about Vivian herself. I guess I read too many novels at the expense of more topical pieces.


  13. Muscato March 10, 2016 / 6:56 pm

    It really is a remarkable story, isn’t it? I saw the documentary first on a long-haul flight, and now that it’s on Netflix I look forward to revisiting it. Maier seems to have been a complex and difficult person (but aren’t we all?), but the art she made is remarkable – and as you point out, it does all seem entirely novelistic.

    Who else is out there, working away, perhaps never to be known or seen?


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 11:59 am

      Hopefully you can watch it on a big TV. I’m guessing the in-flight screen didn’t do it justice.


    • Thomas March 12, 2016 / 12:05 pm

      And yes! That is exactly what I thought. Who else is out there that we don’t know about. Or perhaps even more disappointing is who out there has natural talent but don’t have the chance to even find out what it is.


  14. Chris Wolak April 5, 2016 / 9:35 am

    I remember reading about the discovery of her work while I still lived in Chicago. Stunning work. Some of those images make the world stop and its like I’m frozen and can’t look away. That shot with the nuns–it is so perfect it almost looks posed. Thrilled to hear the movie is on Netflix. Will watch it this weekend.


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