Everybody loves a mystery, and Vivian Maier does not disappoint.

In the past four years, exhibitions of her keen-eyed street photos have drawn rave reviews in 21 shows at galleries from Chicago to Paris, London and Moscow. A documentary film about her life, "Finding Vivian Maier," premiered in New York in November. Her first Twin Cities exhibition, "Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows," opens Friday at the Mpls Photo Center.

Five years ago she was utterly unknown.

When she died in 2009 at age 83, Maier was remembered by only a few friends and the families for whom she had long worked as a nanny in suburban Chicago. In her last years, children she once cared for had done the same for her, saving her from homelessness by paying for her lodging. Only they took notice of her death following a fall on an icy Chicago street.

Her life's work would have gone, too, were it not for a caprice of fate.

As a live-in nanny, Maier had no home of her own so she rented storage lockers for her personal stuff — neatly filed newspaper clippings, shoes, trinkets, cameras, home movies and more than 100,000 negatives, 2,000 rolls of undeveloped black-and-white film and 700 rolls of undeveloped color. But as her finances and health deteriorated, the rent on the lockers went unpaid and in 2007 their contents were auctioned.

Enter John Maloof, a history buff looking for vintage photos to illustrate a book about his Chicago neighborhood. For $380 he bought a box of Maier's negatives. He knew nothing about black-and-white photography but fell in love with Maier's work, and tracked down and bought back 90 percent of the things she'd left behind. He began printing and promoting her work, inciting her present fame.

The other 10 percent are owned by Jeffrey Goldstein, whose collection is the source of the Minneapolis show. All of the photos on view are posthumous prints, made from her original negatives using black-and-white processes typical of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when the photos were taken.

Street dramas

Apparently self-taught, Maier was an omnivorous street photographer whose subjects ranged from men lounging in doorways to kids splashing in Lake Michigan, couples leaning on fire hydrants or heading for the theater, women in furs, men in suits, closeups of hats and heads, hands and feet, arguments, shop windows, a flag, an exhausted family of five disgorged from a bus with all their possessions in twine-tied boxes and bags.

Hers are human dramas, big and little, caught in the flush of life. Her subjects seem unaware that they are being photographed — a young man gazes dreamily into a shop window whose dark glass mirrors his preoccupation, a swirl of smoke wraps a guy lounging in a bar, the circular windows of Mister Kelly's nightclub perfectly frame men strolling past.

They are intimate pictures seemingly taken from within arm's reach of their subjects, as most probably were.

Starting in 1952 Maier worked with a Rolleiflex camera, a boxy device that hung at her waist. On top was a viewfinder through which she framed images onto 2 ¼-inch-square negatives. A relatively expensive professional tool, it was bulky and required planning for each shot, so it was a bit odd for street work at a time when many photographers preferred the lighter, faster-focusing Leica, a 35-millimeter camera she later employed.

She was mostly a one-shot artist who either waited patiently for compositions to materialize, or had an incredible talent for the "decisive moment," as Henri-Cartier Bresson called that split-second when everything falls into place. Only one subject in the show seems to have caught her in the act of snapping a picture, a grumpy Eleanor Roosevelt look-alike in a flowered hat who gave her a baleful glance as the shutter clicked.

Cinematic pictures

Maier's images are deftly composed. In "Men Standing by Blackstone Theater," three 1960s guys in suits — all wearing sunglasses and clutching newspapers — are echoed by a three-step pyramid of buildings behind them. A Kirk Douglas-type hunk leaning on a ladder is the centerpiece of a triangle of light, shadow and men in the background. The crook of a woman's cane is echoed by the curve of her fur stole and the back of the bench on which she sits — but what you first notice, of course, are the beady eyes of the minks curled round her neck.

Every shot reads like a film still, a singular moment when the plot turns, the action stops, an irrevocable decision is made. Maier's striking designs and rich play of light and shadow point up the cinematic tension that makes her photos so mesmerizing. They raise questions and invite interpretation. Will the tender boy with hands to cheeks be knocked, by the careless crowd, onto the railway tracks behind him? Are the four feet half-buried in the sand under a Wilmette Park lifeboat attached to live bodies? Or not?

Maier obviously loved reflections and the dance of light on polished surfaces. In the show's dozen self-portraits, she photographs her shadow and her reflection in windows, mirrors and antique-shop baubles. She is an elusive figure, sometimes mannishly plain and other times playfully pretty. Like Ingrid Bergman, whom she rather resembles, she seems a consummate actress alternatively presenting herself as an ominous shadow, a studious professional or a shy shopper in a stylish hat and coat.

Just enough is known about Maier's early life to raise speculation about her training and influences. Born in New York City, she was raised largely by her French mother, who shared her flat with Jeanne Bertrand, an award-winning portrait photographer. Maier's Austrian father disappeared from the scene while she was still a toddler. She seems to have spent much of her youth in France and claimed to have learned English in theaters. In 1951 she returned to the United States and, at age 25, went to work as a nanny, a career she pursued for the rest of her life. Though obviously not rich, she was well-traveled, possibly going around the world in 1959 and at other times traveling alone to Canada, South America, Europe and the Caribbean.

There were well-published, prominent women photographers at the time who could have been role models, most notably Lee Miller, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke-White. But Maier apparently never sought to sell or exhibit her work, and didn't even show her photos to her few intimate friends. Fiercely independent, intellectual and deeply private, she was "a closed person," a friend said.

"I'm sort of a spy," she once remarked.

And an artist, she should have added.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431