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A detail from Untitled, Self Portrait by Vivian Maier

Five years ago, hell, make that two, no one knew Vivian Maier from Vivian Vance. And why should they have? Dead at 83 in 2009, Maier led a decidedly reclusive, secretive life, unmarried, childless, seemingly unencumbered by any living siblings, largely friendless and working mostly as a nanny for a bewildering array of families in Chicago and New York, including that of seventies talk-show superstar Phil Donahue.

Today, Vivian Maier is famous. The toast of the art world, in fact, and poised to get a lot more famous. A new documentary about her, Finding Vivian Maier, is having its world premiere this month at the Toronto International Film Festival while two Toronto galleries are hosting the first-ever exhibitions of her work in Canada.

Maier's work was photography – street scenes, beach scenes, playgrounds, buildings, shadows and light, a stunning series of self-portraits – which she did with a Rolleiflex twin-lens camera strapped over her shoulders. Shot mostly but not exclusively in black and white, the pictures are distinguished by an alert watchfulness, compositional clarity, sureness of vision, tactility. And we're talking a lot of photography: At the time of her death it's estimated she left behind perhaps 3,000 prints, more than 120,000 negatives, a few thousand rolls of unprocessed film and 150 Super-8mm home movies. All this was crammed, along with many of Maier's other possessions, into five large lockers in Chicago where, in 2007, the storage facility owner sold their contents for non-payment of rent to an auctioneer for $750.

None of the photographs had been published or exhibited anywhere during Maier's lifetime. Arguably, it wasn't until early 2011, when the Chicago Cultural Center hosted a three-month exhibition of her work, that the word started to spread and Maier's reputation began to ascend to the point where her best photographs (connoisseurs generally agree those were lensed in the 1950s and '60s) now rank with the best of Helen Levitt, André Kertész, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, among other point-and-shoot giants of the last 125 years. If you want to test that thesis, travel to the newly opened By Appointment gallery in Toronto where proprietor-curator Isa Spalding is exhibiting 21 Maier prints, 10 of them in one room alongside works by such names as Winogrand, Kertész and Berenice Abbott and living Canadians like Fred Herzog, Stephen Waddell and Scott McFarland. "It's about putting Vivian in a context," notes Spalding.

That there's even the basis for such discussion and comparison is a near miracle. After taking Maier's wares from the storage facility, the auctioneer proceeded to trash about 80 per cent of their contents, deeming them unsalable, according to Toronto's Stephen Bulger who currently has his own show of Maier prints up at his eponymous gallery. Fortunately, the auctioneer seems to have mostly held on to the photographic material, eventually breaking it into 40 or 50 large lots which he sold over three weeks for about $7,500. One of the successful bidders was John Maloof, at the time a 25-year-old real-estate salesman and historian who was co-authoring a history of his Chicago neighbourhood and thought the big box of 30,000 or so Maier negatives he bought, largely unseen for $380, might contain something useful. It didn't. But today Maloof is generally acknowledged as the owner of the most Maier negatives in the world (100,000), followed by another Chicagoan, the painter Jeff Goldstein, who reportedly has about 20,000 negatives (bought from an individual who, like Maloof, participated the 2007 auction but afterward expressed, in Bulger's words, "a bit of buyer's remorse" at having spent the modest sum he had). It's prints from the Goldstein collection that make up Bulger's show, titled Out of the Shadows, while Spalding's are from Maloof's hoard.

Claiming "[his] mission is to put Vivian in the history books," Maloof edited the first substantial monograph on Maier, published in November 2011, then went on to arrange exhibitions of her work at prestigious galleries in Los Angeles and New York. Maloof never met Maier although he has said he "wanted to meet her" post-auction only to have the auction house say "she was ill. [So] I didn't want to bother her." Her trail, moreover, was difficult to track and when, in 2009, he did decide to make a concerted effort, he was stopped cold by a death notice in the Chicago Tribune.

Finding Vivian Maier represents the resumption of the quest. Not only is Maloof a major presence and voice in its 83 minutes, he's also the film's co-producer, co-writer and cinematographer. Poignant, not a little sad, occasionally disturbing, the documentary does a yeoman's job filling in quite a few of the blanks in the Maier biography and, by extension, her photographic practice. Who knew she went on a solo, around-the-world trip in 1959? Or that she tried to go into the postcard business in France? Or that she could be "mean" to some of her young charges? Still, as Roy Orbison would put it, she's very much "a mystery girl" and likely will remain that way. This is not an entirely bad state of affairs, especially for her art. The great thing about Maier initially was that she seemed to come out of nowhere to posthumously elbow her way near the top of the photographic class. All there was was the art – pure, mysterious, uncompromised by gossip, New Yorker profiles, tweets, visits by TV crews to her nursing home. What we knew is what she saw and we saw that it was good.