Sunday, September 14, 2014

Getting into the act

Just when you thought the Vivian Maier saga couldn't get any wackier, a Virginia lawyer jumped into the fray and has begun legal action that might put at least a temporary halt to the production and sale of prints made from the late Chicago photographer's vast archive of negatives left behind after her death in 2009. As you may recall, several lots of items in lockers containing the life's work of Vivian Maier went up for auction after Miss Maier no longer could afford to pay the storage fees. Her work ended up in the hands of complete strangers including a former real estate agent by the name of John Maloof. Maloof like most of the world, was unaware of Maier when he purchased a large portion of her possessions in 2007. After deep-sixing his haul for a couple of years, Maloof returned to it in 2009 when he Googled the name Vivian Maier and discovered that she had died only a few weeks earlier. Soon he began scanning the negatives in his possession and posted the images on a blog titled: "Vivian Maier - Her Undiscovered Work."

I stumbled across his blog not long after Maloof first put it up as my post from 2009 testifies. Like so many others, I was blown away by the pictures that Maloof uncovered. Spanning five decades, Miss Maier's work, a combination very well seen street photographs. and compelling self-portraits, quickly became the talk of the art world. In 2011 the Chicago Cultural Center mounted a show called "Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer."

My own Vivian Maier bubble was burst by that show. Maier's talent and commitment certainly came through but it had to compete with the show's obsessive fascination with her profession as nanny and her eccentric personality. Along with the photographs on the wall, were cases displaying Miss Maier's belongings: in addition to the expected photographic gear were items of clothing, hats, shoes, and other personal items, which to me anyway had very little to do with her work.  Almost as troubling were the photographs on the wall, the vast majority of them were posthumous prints made in a style that bore little resemblance to the handful of vintage prints on display made by the photographer in the fifties.

This last part is important as I mentioned in my earlier post on Miss Maier, because vintage prints are the key to how an artist sees her work, while posthumous prints, in this case made from negatives some of which which Maier never laid eyes upon, represent the sensibilities of others.

Clearly I thought, the Vivian Maier we were seeing in the exhibition was as much the creation of a legend as it was an honest exploration into the work of a talented artist. That legend has grown exponentially in the subsequent years and Miss Maier has achieved in the words of cultural historian Pamela Bannos, the status of a "cult figure."

Alternate versions of Vivian Maier's life have emerged depending on whose collection you look at.

One might think that the folks who bought all the photographer's earthly possessions, the keepers of the Maier legacy if you will, would pool their resources in order to form a clearer picture of Miss Maier's life. Unfortunately that has not been the case. Each collector seems to hold on to his own piece of turf and we are left with a fragmented picture of a complicated person's life.

As you may expect, there is an economic force driving the Viaian Maier industry. Modern prints are being made in limited editions from Miss Maier's negatives and selling in the two to four thousand dollar range per print. Vintage prints are going for ten thousand dollars and up. With several thousand vintage prints and over one hundred thousand negatives in the hands of collectors in a very favorable market, you can imagine there is some very good money to be made.

I made the point in my previous post that there is nothing illegal about this. Miss Maier had no will and made no provisions for her possessions including her art work. The collectors bought Vivian Maier's work fair and square, yet there is something unsettling about the fact that while Miss Maier was living her last years in destitution, having a roof over her head only through the generosity of some of the children she took care of as a nanny many years earlier, complete strangers were buying up her life's work and upon her death set into motion the process of making a fortune off of it.

Enter from stage left, a knight in shining armor, the true defender of  Vivian Meier's legacy, in his eyes at least, a commercial photographer turned lawyer practicing in Orange, Virginia named David C. Deal. Troubled by perfect strangers cashing in on Miss Maier, Mr. Deal took it upon himself to hire genealogists to track down possible Maier relatives in Europe. Now it so happens that in an attempt to remain entirely above board,  John Maloof found an heir, a first cousin once removed named Sylvain Jaussaud of France with whom Maloof worked out a monetary agreement in exchange for the rights to Miss Maier's work. Mr. Deal's genealogists found yet another cousin, a gentleman by the name of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant in the town of Gap, somewhere in northeastern France.  Deal has filed a petition in Cook County that M.Baille be declared Vivian Maier's heir. Letters have been sent to all the collectors who have profited from the reproduction of Maier's work informing them that those transactions may at some undisclosed time in the future, be subject to lawsuit.

According to this article in the New York Times, M. Baille refused to speak with the press, wisely preferring all comments to be made through his lawyer who said the following:
It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.
One can only imagine.

Mr. Deal claims that he is only interested in doing the right thing and would be perfectly happy to break even in the, pardon the pun, deal. I have no reason (wink wink nudge nudge) to doubt his sincerity.

What I don't understand is this: if David C. Deal is so appalled by the ethics of strangers profiting off Vivian Maier, how is it different if the rights to her work are turned over to another perfect stranger five thousand miles away who was never aware of her existence let alone her work, who just happens to be a distant relative?
Perhaps M. Baille actually has a keen appreciation of his distant first cousin once removed, and for her "precious legacy". Perhaps he sees something terribly unjust that people who had no idea she existed while she was alive, and most likely would not have given her the time of day if they had, are profiting from her work now that she's dead. Perhaps M. Baille will decide that to truly honor his late relative, her work, now that it has come to be known to the world, should be laid to rest beside its maker.

But I doubt it.

From his lawyer's statement, it appears that M. Baille knows he's sitting on top of a gold mine. It seems very likely that M. Baille would certainly like to tap into that gold mine, as it appears to be his legal right. If that's true, it would certainly be in his best interest to support the continued publishing of her work and the promotion of her legend. And who would be better partners in that endeavor than the people who created the market for her work and tapped into it in the first place?

So if you're one of those people who are concerned that Vivian Maier's works will become unavailable to the general public because of her new found heir and the legal actions surrounding him, I would say don't worry.

Thanks to Dave Deal, there will just be another hand or two reaching out for a piece of the action.

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