There's a brand new Vivian Maier slide show at the New York Times' Lens Blog. Don't forget to click "Full Screen."
Nota bene: #9 (shown above), in my opinion, is a much better photograph than the controversial contest winner we were arguing about a few months back. And check out #18 in light of The Sartorialist.
(Thanks to Rob Atkins)
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Tom K.: "One of the great photography stories of my lifetime. Her work is remarkable."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka:"The questions of whether or not Vivian Maier is one of the 'great' photographers is a slippery issue that is perhaps best resolved through a different lens.
"I have seen enough of Ms. Maier's work, since John Maloof began making it public, to know that her skills and determination at candid street photography most certainly earns her a place among those of the most celebrated street photographers of the last century. I am more than familiar enough with that group's work to declare that as indisputable.
"But the other fact is that Vivian Maier can never be granted the recognition of Winogrand, Frank, Davidson, et al. for one simple reason; she was not influential in her day. She was a loner and not part of the game. She will always be, at best, a lovely asterisk. To use a rather meat-headed common sports analogy, you can only become a great football player by being in the game when it was played. Being able to kick 60 yard field goals in a public park is meaningless. The discovery of old, posthumous films of you kicking those filed goals 40 years ago is interesting but really meaningless.
"During the past year or so there has been anger and resentment expressed against several museum curators who have seemed rather indifferent towards Vivian Maier's work. Clearly many people do not understand the mission of museums or curators. Public museum's main mission is that of art history education. The curators I know who have seen Maier's work have all acknowledged that it's wonderful stuff. I am sure that eventually some of her prints will land in permanent collections of several museums. But Vivian Maier was kicking 60 yard field goals by herself in the park while the actual football games were played elsewhere. As simply wonderful as her work was it does not represent an inflection point on photography's time line the way that the work of long-celebrated photographers' did, even though hers may be actually better.
"So let's just celebrate Vivian Maier's discovery and applaud John Maloof's tenacity at making it publicly available for us to enjoy."
Mike replies: Ken, I agree that it's way too early to declare Vivian "great" or to appraise her place or status in any way: her work is just beginning to unfold, and has only begun to be seen appropriately. It is essentially at the moment still mostly a promise, still largely unknown.
However, as we all learn in beginning logic class, "argument by analogy does not constitute proof," and I don't agree with your field-goal-kicker analogy. What about late discoveries like Fred Herzog and Robert Bergman, who have both been getting attention very late in their lives, largely for the first time?
The parallel most often drawn in Vivian Maier's case is to Eugene Atget. Atget was little-known in his lifetime and would certainly have remained unknown but for being championed by Berenice Abbot, who was Man Ray's assistant in the 1920s. Abbot literally saved his archive from destruction, and eventually managed to sell it to the Museum of Modern Art more than 40 years after Atget's death. Atget's position in the history of photography is virtually entirely posthumous.
Indeed, I'm very surprised to hear this "not in the game" argument from you, since you have championed—on TOP no less—the Chicago photographer Gary Stochl, the street photographer roughly contemporaneous with Vivian Maier who was "discovered" by Bob Thall of Columbia College in 2004! You certainly didn't imply in your article that Stochl was kicking field goals in a park.
There are certainly other precendents for artists unknown in their lifetimes being celebrated by posterity—William Blake and Emily Dickinson come to mind.
I can't say why photography curators haven't been very interested in Maier's work because I don't know that they aren't. We've heard a few tentative, tepid early appraisals from a few of them, but "curators" aren't monolithic—one doesn't speak for all. If there is indeed a lack of interest from those quarters, I suspect it's because they either don't like her work (the generous conclusion) or because they weren't the ones who discovered and championed her or who control her archive (the cynical conclusion). Further reasons, as I said at the outset, include the fact that "the jury's still out" on the work as a whole.
And another point that as far as I know no one's mentioned yet: Vivian Maier didn't edit or print her own work, or at least not very much of it, and this leaves out a crucial aspect of the creative process in the eyes of professional "artist appraisers" such as curators. John Maloof or one of the other owners of Vivian's work (it's coming to light that there are several, not just John) might print a negative that he thinks is wonderful, but how do we know that Maier herself wouldn't have dismissed or rejected that picture? The opposite might also be possible. A photographer who doesn't select and shape the presentation of her work is missing a piece. It even matters that she didn't make her own prints—how would we know the real vision of, say, Roy DeCarava if all we had were his unedited negatives? That is to say, part of his artistic vision is contained in how he printed*.
Yet another reason, as you imply, is the "historians shouldn't make history." That is, historians report on history, they don't create it. The story of Vivian Maier is unfolding now, organically, in the hands of her archive's adventitious handlers and in the broader culture. In that view, it's simply not time yet for the museums to be meddling in the situation. Vivian Maier might not have been "in the game" in, say, 1970, but she is in the game in 2010, and eventually she'll be appraised that way.
*To put on my teacher's hat again here (and address everyone, not Ken), it can hardly be emphasized enough—you can be a photographer, even a rich and very successful one, without ever being any sort of artist. But if you want to be an art photographer—a photographer who is an artist—you must see your work into its intended final form, whatever that is—or at least indicate very clearly what that form is supposed to be.
Ken responds: "Interesting rebuttal from you! I wonder if you've misinterpreted my remarks.
"I think Maier's work is simply superb. I also think Herzog's and Stochl's work is superb. I want it all shown and published as often and widely as possible. As I write, I have just returned from my first walk-through of Vivian's show at the Chicago Cultural Center. Honestly, for the first time ever, I literally teared up as I walked through. Such a wonderfully talented person walking such a quiet, solitary life keeping all to herself. In addition to many wonderful prints (really good ink jets of equally good scans), there are several cases showing some of her personal notes, some shards of correspondence and even a set of her ever-present hats. (The hat case is what put me over the edge.) It's a tremendously understated but extremely touching show.
"My main point, however, was largely in defense of museum curators I know who have received some really angry, snotty correspondence from amateur enthusiasts who are 'outraged' that their museums are not devoting entire wings to this woman's images. Cruising through the amateur photo forums also reveals an angry undertone. So my earlier remarks were directed mainly toward folks who feel that the 'art world' is ignoring Maier and, as is so common, feel that it's because of some conspiracy to exclude unknown newcomers.
"Maier, Stochl, Herzog, and all of the other late discoveries deserve recognition and publication. There's no question that Maier will get shown (if her current trustees gets some good guidance) at a few galleries and perhaps even a few regional museums. But my point was that Maier can never be recognized (or collected) at the same level as, say, Winogrand, Arbus, or Frank mainly because she worked in utter isolation and influenced nothing in her time. That is, her work is outstanding but not important in the historical narrative of photography."
Mike adds: We might almost call that last "Jack White syndrome"...just sayin'.