‘What’s the point of taking it if no-one sees it?’

Who was Vivian Maier? John Maloof certainly didn’t know when he bought a box of her photos at auction. But this random purchase led to some extensive detective work and has resulted in the exposure – if you will – of one of the 20th century’s most talented photographers. Finding Vivian Maier opens by showing us the background to the story – the discovery of literally hundreds of thousands of photos. They largely comprised street photography, scenes of ordinary people living ordinary lives – captured by a lady who had an amazing eye for an image. And yet no one had heard of her or seen her amazing pictures.

‘She was so secretive.’

Vivian Maier’s work had never been exhibited and key figures within the photography establishment had no idea who she was, although everyone who viewed her work could see that she had an eye for a picture. Museums were not interested in helping catalogue her vast collection so Maloof set about the task himself. Maier was not only a prolific photographer, she collected and hoarded all sorts of items. But she was incredibly private – she even spelled her name in different ways on receipts and documents, almost as though she was protecting her identity. So, who was she? Further investigation revealed that many people actually knew her and of her obsession with photography. Because she was their nanny.

‘Why is a nanny taking all these photos?’

Thus unfolds a fascinating documentary as we learn about Maier and the families she lived with and the children she looked after over the years. Alongside the photos, the film features interviews with her many charges and people who knew her, as well as Maloof’s journey to visit her French relatives, slowly building up a picture of a remarkably unremarkable life; one that could have been celebrated during her lifetime but somehow wasn’t. In part, it seems, this may have been due to her personality. Maier was not particularly loved by many of her wards. She seemed to favour a career as a nanny because it gave her the freedom to take the children out and about, and this gave her an excuse to indulge in her beloved photography, although this sometimes resulted in the kids visiting abattoirs. In one particularly insensitive incident Maier impassively takes photos of one of the children who has been run over by a car – rather than rushing to his assistance.

‘Always had a camera round her neck’

Whether Maloof actually found the real Maier is impossible to say – she appeared to be part Mary Poppins, part John Waters’ Pecker with an occasional touch of Kathy Bates from Misery – but his documentary is nevertheless a thoroughly captivating portrait of an eccentric lady who happened to be an amazing photographer.