Search for Vivian Maier on Amazon and you'll see a prominent disclaimer on the page offering the most readily available book of her photography. The publisher has left a number of the volume's pages blank on purpose, cautions the mega-retailer. From the paper stock to the printing quality, complaints about the not-very-expensive book abound among the customer reviews. What do you want for $26? point out other commenters. You get what you pay for.
When John Maloof went searching for information about Maier just a few years ago, there was nothing about her on Amazon - or anywhere else online. Maloof had purchased a copious grab-bag assortment of photos and negatives at a Chicago-area auction, then found that his $400 investment yielded an absorbing mystery: Who took these alternately playful and haunting black-and-white images? And then another question: Is Maier's street photography of a caliber similar to that of figures such as Garry Winogrand and Weegee?
Maloof's documentary answers the first question in adequately PBS-like fashion, introducing us to an array of people who knew Maier as a nanny (and, later in her life, as a character like one of the disturbed brothers in Terry Zwigoff's Crumb), one who took photos but didn't share the results. It's people-in-their-living-rooms stuff, set to a naggingly peppy musical score.
To get at the other answer, Maloof settles for repeating the question a number of times. That hollow isn't as aggravating as the movie's failure to address whether finding a secret artist entitles the discoverer to control the artist's legacy. That Amazon book is part of a presumably very profitable apparatus that has gone up virtually overnight, centered on Maier and run by Maloof. There is no denying Maier's gift. But Maloof's movie leaves too many pages blank. And it leaves you wondering when its subject's photos will finally hang in places outside Maloof's cottage.