By Kenneth Tanaka
In my recent article on the Vivian Maier exhibition at the Chicago History Museum I noted a forthcoming new book of her work. That book is now shipping. If you're short of time I can summarize it for you in one word: excellent.
Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, in my opinion, presents her work in exactly the correct manner, starting with the book's size and form-factor: it's 9.2 inches square, just like the 6x6-cm square frames from Maier's Rolleiflex. The book is large enough to be a detailed presentation but small enough to be comfortably lap-read. The 275 images are presented on facing pages, one per page, with one in full-bleed and the other inset-bordered with a page number. There is a section of early snapshots presented in contact-sheet style.
The printing is also spot-on: it's basic black-and-white. No faux toning or other artificial sweeteners or "art-eners." By all accounts and indications Ms. Maier wasn't trying to make art or sentimental mementos. She was catching and recording life's visual fireflies. And that's how the images are presented here.
The organization of the book also establishes a series of good contextual frameworks for considering the images. Remember that neither the authors nor the owners of Maier's images ever knew her, and that she reportedly left relatively scant personal records with her film. So the authors, Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, have apparently amalgamated their biographical research with notes and dates found with the film to organize the images into chronological or locational groups that represent the when/where/why of Maier's photography. The chapter titles ("Snapshots," "America," "Day," "Maxwell," etc.) may appear nutty, but they serve the material very well.
It's also worth noting that Cahan and Williams, who are both experienced documentary authors and reporters, have done a lot of basic research to present the fullest biographical portrait of Maier offered to date. We learn of her life in Europe, of her employers' impressions, of the recollections of the children she cared for. We also learn how the collections of Maier's work came into their current ownerships. (The work in this book is from Jeffrey Goldstein's collection.) Through the short essays that preface each section, Cahan and Williams give us as intimate a posthumous portrait of Maier as is probably possible of such a private person.
Comparisons of Out of the Shadows (left) and
Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.
I have no idea if there will be another volume of Vivian Maier's work published. Given the reportedly enormous amount of her still-unseen work and the public's apparently strong appetite to see it, I would bet heavily that there will be several future books. But even if this book is the finale, it would feel like a complete overview of Vivian Maier's deeply private and highly talented life and her passion for candid and street photography.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jeffrey Goggin: "For what it's worth, I agree with Ken's review, word for word. I have had my copy for a few weeks now and still have not put it on the shelf yet, because I keep flipping through its pages...."
Yohan: "I skipped the first book due to the reported printing issues, so I was happy that my sight-unseen purchase of this second book proved to be a good decision. Her work is so intimate, often very up close and personal. My first impression was a similarity to Helen Levitt's work, but the more I look at it the more personal Maier's work seems. Maybe it's simply choice of focal length or maybe it's the other way around—that the focal length choice was a decision based on how personal she wanted her photos to be. In either case I'm glad I've finally jumped on the bandwagon."
Harry Lime: "What an incredible talent Vivan Maier was and what a stroke of luck it is that John Maloof discovered her work. The story of her discovery makes me think about the ramifications of the move away from film. In the digital age of photography there will be no 'Mexican Suitcase' or storage locker hiding a treasure trove like hers. If Vivian Maier had shot digital, her hard drive would have been dumped in the trash or ended up at the local thrift shop. If it had landed on a shelf for 10 years, there is a good chance that it would have been unreadable, because the OS it was formatted for changed or the drive connector had become obsolete. All John Maloof had to do was hold up a strip of negative to the light to see that he had stumbled on to something special. This is not meant to be a rant against digital, but longterm storage remains the Achilles' heel of the digital age."
Ken replies: You are so correct, Harry. Preserving immaterial works such as digital image files is a very nasty challenge for archives and museums. But the immortality insurance policy is cheap and easy: print the images you want to survive you. Let Vivian Maier's work and Capa's "Mexican Suitcase" be a reminder lesson to us all.
Ed: "It's too bad she never got recognition or profit for her work, and instead carpetbagging dilletanttes of the Storage Wars mentality get all the benefit. Sad. Not unlike Henry Darger, it seems."
Mike replies: That's overly harsh, Ed. Those "carpetbagging dilettantes" as you call them saved her work from oblivion, let's not forget—for whatever reason, she wasn't putting herself in front of the world or participating in the conversation. As for profiting from her work, I don't know Jeffrey Goldstein, but I've spoken to John Maloof on the phone, and the Maier archive has taken over his life and become a more-that-full-time job, and last I heard, he wasn't getting rich—rather, he needed to make money to continue to support all the work he's doing on the archive, which is expensive.
We must also not forget that Vivian didn't reify her own work—she didn't make fine prints of her work, or at least not consistently; she left large numbers of negatives unproofed and large numbers of exposed rolls of film undeveloped; she didn't edit her work or sequence books according to her own intention, or write about her pictures or do any of the rest of the work that turns raw material into an actual artistic accomplishment. Being an actual artist doesn't just involve snapping the shutter—that's essential, of course, but it's also just where it starts. The work that her various abettors are doing is a significant part of the art. It's not trivial. If you've ever had a show or prepared a book or a book dummy you'll know exactly what I mean. A more generous way of looking at it is that they're working hard on her behalf so that her life's work—in the photographic sphere anyway—was not in vain.
Jeffrey Goldstein responds [it is work from Jeffrey's collection that makes up Out of the Shadows —Ed.]: "I wanted to respond to Ed's comment, and he is right on one account, we are a motley crew. I think a little research my assuage Ed's spirit. Besides visiting our site, you can Google my name and IWU to find out a little about me and my relationship to the arts, mainly Chicago's art scene.
"Our handling of the prints is a good example of how we handle all the aspects of the Vivian Maier project. We stay silver gelatin and first generation negative use only. All issues are hand corrected, spotting and etching on the prints by two different people in two different places. We won't even wash the negatives for concerns of irreparable damage; instead I pay the (extra) expense to hand spot dust, etc. for the sake of provenance and future generations. Our lead master printer, Ron Gordon, came out of retirement for this project. He is of the right age (vintage) and experience as is our other printer of the team, Sandy Steinbrecher. The prints, as are we, are under global scrutiny.
"Ed, I have to tell you your wrong where you state that we, myself and John 'get all the benefit.' You have the beauty of walking into the Thomas Masters Gallery on North Avenue (show ends this week), or any of the other shows we do (see site for details), to see 80+ handmade silver gelatin prints laid out in conjunction with the book, literally by chapter. The casual gallery-goer benefits from our labor to have a neatly arranged and professionally framed (hey, 8-ply museum board) Vivian Maier experience. It's as close as you'll ever get to her...for free.
"The viewers benefit from the collectors. No collectors, no funding; no funding, no shows. It's a pretty simple business concept. I would encourage anyone serious to contact me at the email on our site and arrange to visit our office space (Chicago) where we work full time 5–6 days on the Vivian Maier project. School classes welcomed. Thanks to people like Mike and other supporters.
"There is something positive for everybody from Vivian Maier and her work, artist and non-artist alike."