“Finding Vivian Maier,” one of the most riveting documentaries I’ve ever seen, is now on DVD and it’s a must-see.

Back in 2007, young historian John Maloof bought a box of negatives at auction in hopes of finding pictures to illustrate a book he was writing about Chicago. What he discovered, instead, was one of the best street photographers of the 20th century.

Stunned by the power and depth of the collection – there were over 100,000 negatives and thousands of rolls of undeveloped film – and shocked that no one had ever seen any of these photos before, Maloof started investigating the mysterious photographer.

“You always want to know who’s behind the work,” says Maloof, but it seems that even the people who knew Maier didn’t really know her.

Vivian Maier was, of all things, a nanny. In the film, Maloof interviews the now-grown children she cared for, along with their parents, including Phil Donahue who remembers her taking a photo of a garbage can and thinking, “Well, they laughed at Picasso.”

No one is laughing now. Acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark calls Maier’s work “beautiful” and believes “she would have been a famous photographer” if she had showed her photos to anyone. 

Since the release of this documentary, Maier has quickly become that “famous photographer,” although we can only wonder how she would have felt about that notoriety. 

Maier’s work is masterful and her story is fascinating because it’s just so strange. The people she lived with for so many years had no idea that she was born in New York because she spoke with a French accent. She even refused to tell a storekeeper her name, saying, “I’m sort of a spy.”

And, in her own way, she was. Rarely seen without a camera around her neck, she observed and snapped everything going on around her. She had no qualms about photographing people at their most vulnerable moments, and her images tell profound and – sometimes uncomfortable – stories.

Her young charges have mixed memories of how she treated them, and there are hints of a real dark side. They recall frequent visits to Marshall Fields department store, where she was ultimately kicked out for helping herself to too many candy samples, and a trip to a stockyard which is hauntingly captured on film. 

We will probably never know why Maier was so obsessive about taking pictures but she captures the human condition so intimately, her photos take your breath away.

Maier’s work is now being exhibited all over the world, and Maloof is still archiving her prolific collection. It’s astonishing to think that her work could so easily have been discarded, and we would have missed out on this valuable – and stunning --documentation of life in the latter half of the 20th century.

If you’ve ever doubted that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, just see this movie.

Want to win a copy of the DVD for yourself? Comment below to be entered in the drawing. We will choose one random winner from our commenters on August 15, 2014. 

 

Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post. She is the reigning champion of Blogger Idol and was recently named Humor Writer of the Month by Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. Lois won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013, and writes regularly on pop culture and travel. Because of her blog, Oprah Winfrey selected her as an Ultimate Viewer and took her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime. A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, she was the Flicks for Kids editor at NickJr.com and a contributing writer for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade. Transplanted New Yorkers, Lois and her husband of 32 years now live in San Diego, where they have turned into weather wimps and complain about the pizza. Their grown kids are, of course, both on the East Coast. You can follow Lois on Facebook or Twitter.