Sunday, July 27, 2014

A tree falls in the forest

If you haven't heard of Vivian Maier by now, you simply haven't been paying attention. She's everywhere; her work has appeared in books, web sites, magazine articles, films, and gallery exhibitions. Her life and work have been featured on TV, social media and on the radio, you name it; Vivian Maier is just about the hottest artist around these days.

In case you've been living under the proverbial rock, Maier was an amateur photographer/artist in the purest sense of the term. She incessantly took pictures everywhere she went, beginning in the fifties and continuing until circumstances forced her to give up her passion sometime in the eighties. Despite the considerable volume of work she produced, estimates range between 100 and 200 thousand images, she rarely showed anyone her pictures. Many of her images in fact were never even seen by Maier herself as she left behind thousands of rolls of unprocessed film when she died in 2009.

Tempting as it might be to label Miss Maier an outsider artist, her work falls well within the established tradition of documentary or street photography as it was practiced at the time she was active. If you didn't know any better, you might confuse particular Vivian Maier pictures with the work of well established artists such as Berenice Abbott, Louis Faurer, Lisette Model, Harry Callahan, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Larry Fink, and countless others.

The back-story of Vivian Maier is almost as interesting as her pictures. I say "almost" to avoid distracting from what we should at this late date be paying attention to in the first place, the work itself. Yet "the press" seems fixated on her seemingly eccentric lifestyle, her decision not to exhibit her work, and the chosen profession that sustained Miss Maier (as she preferred to be called) and her work for many years, that of nanny. They have gone so far has to dub her quite regrettably: "Mary Poppins with a Camera."

An industry has sprung up around Vivian Maier since her death in 2009, engaged in discussing, analyzing, debating, promoting, disseminating, deconstructing and reconstructing her life and work. To be sure in case you're wondering, more than a few dollars have exchanged hands in the process.

While I have great admiration for Vivian Maier's work, some of the work of the industry whose stated intent is the promotion of Miss Maier's legacy is troublesome to me.

I first became aware of Vivian Maier and her extraordinary work in 2009 after stumbling upon this blog put together by one of the guys who discovered her pictures only two years before. According to his"official" Vivian Maier web site, John Maloof was looking for images of the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park for a book project when he came across a box of photographs and negatives of Miss Maier's. He bought the box at an estate auction but put it aside once he and a partner didn't find any relevant images among the thousands of pictures. Maloof's attention returned to the box in 2009.

Not having a clue who the creator of the images was, he Googled the name "Vivian Maier" and came up with the photographer's obituary. It turned out she had died only a few months before; he had in fact took possession of much of her life's work while she was still alive.

Maloof began to scan the negatives and soon put together the web site, then a Flicker site. That site which chronicles much of the Maier phenomenon from Maloof's perspective can be found here.

The complete story of how Vivian Maier's work went viral is more complicated than I care to go into but in a nutshell, Maloof would eventually buy up much of Maier's earthly possessions. While there is certainly nothing illegal about legitimately buying a dead photographer's archive, then creating a myth around her in order to sell her work at exorbitant prices, I do find the practice unseemly at best, unethical at worst.  Playing up the Mary Poppins angle in the mercurial art world, the owner(s) of the Vivian Maier brand jumped at every opportunity to promote their product every step of the way. In the name of sharing her work with the world, they would process thousands of rolls of her film, select hundreds of images, then make limited editions of prints from the negatives and sell them for upwards of $2,000 apiece. This is not an unreasonable price for a high quality photographic art print but a few things must be considered:

That Miss Maier was a talent is indisputable. She knew her way around a sophisticated camera, mastering the technical aspects of focus, depth of field, and exposure, using those things to her advantage to create images of the highest professional standards. Beyond that, she had a tremendous eye, a fantastic sense of composition, and the willingness to confront her subjects directly, usually total strangers with whom she had no trepidations about approaching at close range and snapping their pictures. The pictures of hers that have come to light in the past five years are compelling images, windows into a bygone world where ladies wore gloves and hats with veils, and gentlemen wore suits and ties while strolling about the city. She had a particular interest in the poor and downtrodden, homeless people back in the days when they were considered little more than useless bums. Perhaps her most compelling images are the self-portraits, images of herself reflected in a mirror or a shadow, sheepishly placed within the context urban milieu that she loved to explore. Cynics might say that anyone shooting that much film would be able to produce a couple hundred good photographs, but that is not so. Vivian Maier had a clear vision of what she wanted in her work; there is no hit or miss quality in her photographs, she knew exactly what she was doing.

But there is more to being a photographer than taking pictures. An essential part of the art of photography is knowing what to keep and what to set aside. While it's true that photojournalists often shoot roll upon roll of film, (or today, digital files), then send them off sight unseen to their publishers who select the images they wish to use, even they had to at some point in their careers, edit their work to show to prospective employers. Miss Maier did leave behind a number of prints of her work, so we know that at some point she did in fact select what to print and what to leave behind. Those prints are what we in the biz refer to as "vintage prints", that is to say, prints made either directly by the photographer or under her supervision within a set time (say five or ten years) after the creation of the negative. Maier's vintage prints have been sent off to commercial fine art galleries where they sell for on average between the high four and the low five digits.

A photographer's vintage prints are valuable for us in that they provide a clue into how the artist saw her work as a finished piece at the time it was made. Comparing a photographer's vintage prints to her negatives is somewhat akin to comparing a painter's finished paintings to her sketchbooks. In Maier's case, she left behind hundreds of thousands of sketchbooks, but relatively few finished works.

It is interesting that in the vintage works we have, Vivian Maier cropped her prints in the darkroom, choosing to cut out bits and pieces of the image she deemed unnecessary or distracting. To crop or not to crop is the discretion of the artist and is an essential part of the process. Sometime during the fifties and sixties, it became the standard procedure among many photographers to eschew cropping altogether as the full-framed, un-cropped print was seen as somehow more pure and honest.

The folks who are making posthumous prints from Maier's negatives, have chosen to print with the more contemporary, full frame style, something Maier apparently never did. It's not unreasonable to print her negatives this way, after all no one could possibly assume to know how Maier would have cropped her own individual prints. Of course, no one could possibly know which of her negatives Maier would have chosen to print either, not to mention the infinite choices a photographer has to determine the final look of a print. So the question inevitably arises with these posthumous prints, whose work are they, Maier's or the printers'? That is precisely why you won't find the posthumous prints in the collections of fine art museums, the hand of the creator is simply too ambiguous.

Another particularly irksome issue is the fact that the owners of Maier's archive are making limited editions of these posthumous prints. In traditional printmaking processes such as woodblock printing, etching, and lithography, the matrix from which a print is made, whether it be a block of wood, a plate or a stone, is degraded slightly every time a new print is cast. The numbers of an edition actually mean something in these processes as the later prints in the edition are inevitably of a lower quality than the earlier prints. Not so with a photographic negative which if processed correctly can withstand thousands of exposures to light during the printmaking process before showing the slightest sign of degradation. The only reason to make limited editions of photographs, is to artificially inflate the value of the prints by limiting their quantity. This is a standard, well accepted practice in the art world when it comes to living photographers who have the inherent right to determine how their work is to be distributed. It is a much more questionable practice in the case of a dead artist who has no say about her work. Playing this card seems to fly in the face of the expressed idea of sharing Vivian Maier's work with the world.

So what is exactly is Vivian Maier's place in the world? The Vivian Maier industry would have us believe that they have given the us, in the words of this article in The Independent (with perhaps just a touch of irony):
one of the greatest photographic collections of the 20th century...
The article goes on to say the discovery of her work:
– led to Maier belatedly coming to the world’s attention and garnering a posthumous reputation on a par with Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In other words, hers is the work of a heretofore hidden genius, an artist who ranks up there among the great photographers of her generation, a secretive mystery woman who led a double life, nanny by day, great artist by night.

Compelling stuff to be sure but my biggest question (without any irony) to the VM industry is this: Are you serving Vivian Maier and the art of photography, or are you serving yourselves?

Full disclosure here: several friends and acquaintances of mine are a part of the Vivian Maier industry. Without exception, these folks are passionate and care deeply about the medium of photography. I have no doubt whatsoever that they sincerely believe that Miss Maier's work truly deserves the attention it is getting.

Pamela Bannos who is a photographer, cultural historian and professor at Northwestern University, is working on her own book on Maier, trying to create a balanced, nuanced view of the artist. Obviously she too believes that Maier deserves the attention. But she brings to light some troubling aspects about the way Miss Maier the person has been treated by her living handlers. Speaking about John Maloof and his recent film: Finding Vivian Maier, part of which includes scenes featuring several of Maier's personal belongings laid out for display, Bannos says this:
The way he handled this very private woman’s belongings made me feel very uncomfortable. I think that he has successfully made Vivian Maier into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows this model...
I don’t think the movie is a documentary about Vivian Maier at all — it is a film about John Maloof and his quest to “find” Maier. He states early on that his interest is in getting her work into museums, and then spends the bulk of the film exploring her quirky and then troublesome personality.
And what about that "troublesome personality"- should it be of any concern to us? Bannos speculates that Maier probably did at one point try to exhibit her work, as most of the prints she made herself are from her earlier period when she lived in New York. One can only speculate but perhaps early rejection soured her on the process of showing her work, but not on making it. If that is true, Maier's story is not all that unusual. There are countless people who are driven above all other things to make art of one kind or other, and few of them gain any recognition for it. Fewer still are lucky enough to support themselves entirely by making art. Even very successful artists (in terms of sales) at times need to supplement their income through teaching or other means. Others get by any way they can; unless you're like Josef Koudelka and content to lead a vagabond, hand-to-mouth existence in order to create your work, you get a regular job.

Much has been made of Vivian Maier's job as a nanny. Would so much have been made about her vocation had she been a teacher or lawyer? One can only guess, but I think the appellation:  "Hillary Clinton with a camera" doesn't quite have the same ring.

Finally there's the question about her work: is it really as good as they say it is?  There is no definitive answer to that question. Beyond everything I stated above about her work, the process of creating art is one of give and take. I think it's obvious that Vivian Maier's work was not created in a vacuum, she had to have looked at a great many pictures made by her contemporaries as her work is clearly influenced by them. By not exhibiting her work for whatever reason, she wasn't afforded the opportunity to give back, therefore her work inspired or influenced no one. If an artist such as Beethoven for example, had written exactly the music he did, however kept it all to himself during his lifetime, only to have is discovered posthumously, would he have been as great an artist? I think that question is similar to the philosophical question:  "if a tree fell in the forest with no one there to hear it, would it make a sound?"

My answer to both questions would be no.

By definition, sound is "the reception of mechanical waves of pressure and displacement, through a medium such as air and water and their perception by the brain." In other words, sound is the experience of a physical event, not the event itself. Hence if no one, (an animal with the capacity to hear that is) is present to experience and perceive the event, there is no sound. Likewise, art goes beyond the creation of work. It is a process intricately tied the world around it, not to mention what came before and what will ultimately come later. Great as Beethoven's music was, without Beethoven the teacher, Beethoven the performer, Beethoven the conductor, and Beethoven the living man, there would not have been the interaction with other musicians to guide, influence, inspire, or even piss them off as he often did. Without the living Beethoven there to directly influence Schubert and other composers of his era, the music created after him would be have been much different.Without Beethoven's direct contact with his successors, he would not have been as great an artist.

As Vivian Maier did not exhibit her work during her lifetime and participate in the give and take that is a very important part of creating art, she never realized her full potential as an artist. This does not take away anything in the slightest from her work. It is what it is, very well crafted, well seen images, some very good, some remarkable, some astounding, of a world we have lost. Miss Maier is not however a Berenice Abbot or a Cartier-Bresson, nor does she deserve to be included in their company because unlike them, whether by choice or circumstance, she and her work did not participate in the flow of concepts and ideas that moved art and the medium along as theirs did.

Perhaps it's too bad for us that Vivian Maier never realized her full potential; we'll never know how art made today would have been different if she had. We'll also never know if it was too bad for Vivian Maier that she never received the accolades during her life that she's receiving now. My guess is that she lived her life exactly as she saw fit. But that's only a guess; only she knew the answer to those questions, and she took those answers with her to the grave.

Since we don't have any of these answers, the ultimate question is this: is it right to exhibit her work at all without her permission? We could argue both sides of the issue until the end of time.

My personal feeling is this: we're all the better for having seen her work.

In the end I think the answer to the difficult question of Vivian Maier was best expressed by a short comment I found this morning on a Facebook post advertising a Vivian Maier event featuring collectors, book publishers, and printers of Miss Mayer's work, followed by a book signing. The comment, written by a woman named Michiko Kong was this:
Hardly seems fair to have a signing when the photographs are taken by Vivian.

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