My favorite photography critic* has surfaced again. To read, put "what does art look like site:wsj.com" (without the quotation marks) into Google. Richard B. Woodward discusses the difficulty of printing artists' work after their deaths, and puts the Vivian Maier situation into perspective.
I read everything I can find that this guy writes. Always good, often great, never bad.
(Thanks to MM)
*Well, certainly one of them.
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Featured Comments from:
Richard Newman: "An interesting column, but:
"In the end, it is the 'art object' itself, whether photo, oil painting, sculpture, room size installation or 'whatever' plus current taste, that determines what is art, and how good it is. Few viewers of Mona Lisa, or a Picasso, or an Ansel Adams know or care about the technique of production. They are not themselves artists. It is the visual impression which counts. Few etchers get credit for the creation of the etching. The artist gets it all (with some exceptions). So Adams has a point that the negative—or the raw digital image—is a score, and the printer who makes the printis analogous to the orchestral musician who is usually anonymous. Who makes critical decisions in printing depends on the relationship between photographer and printer-even if they are the same person. A great original can result in great prints—or lousy ones. What counts is the result being presented to the world at large. When the photographer is deceased, such as Maier, where no obvious original intent is available, much responsibility rests on the person(s) who select what is to be printed, and does the printing. But still, it is the art object which is the final arbiter of artistic value.
"There is also the photographer's reason for making the image. Not all are intended to be presented in galleries or museums as art objects. For example, most of the photos taken in the 1930s by FSA photographers were intended to be a record of an economic disaster. Some few have achieved art object status, but most served their purpose as records, and were published for that purpose. Similarly, many family photos will never achieve 'art' status, but in family albums make relatives and friends remember important times and events."
"Given these factors, I think that we need to remember that the 'art object' itself is what counts, and its history and production processes are of little interest to the general public. They are for specialists only, unless, like war photography, the context matters."
adamct: "The art market will certainly decide what prints of Ms. Maier's work are worth. That is the nature of the art market—something is only worth whatever it is that someone is willing to pay for it. It doesn't really matter why they are willing (or unwilling) to pay for something, all that matters is that they are (or are not). Logical arguments are highly unlikely to sway the market one way or the other.
"But as a philosophical matter, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. If a photographic negative is the score, and the print is the performance, then why are we treating photography any differently than we treat music or theater? We can value the score and the performance separately, in and of themselves. If we discovered the works of an obscure composer, whose works were never performed, would we dismiss his compositions out of hand? If we discovered the works of an obscure playwright, would we question the artistic value of posthumous performances of those plays?
"What should actually happen (again, from a logical perspective, I am in no way suggesting that the art market would or should actually correspond to my argument) is that we should celebrate Ms. Maier as a photographer, and prints of her work should be judged on the quality (both from the perspective of printing as a craft, and as a matter of artistic interpretation) of the prints. Perhaps the art market simply doesn't think Mr. Maloof's prints are any good (I'm not actually saying that is the case—this is a thought experiment). Perhaps he should permit accomplished printers to print a very limited number of prints of Ms. Maier's negatives. This would ensure the scarcity that is vital to the art market. But it would result in a variety of interpretations of Ms. Maier's score, and we could leave it to the market to judge the relative value of those prints. Perhaps some of them would be worth more than Mr. Maloof's prints.
"But even apart from differences in value, as judged by the market, it would permit fans of Ms. Maier's work to see it in a new light, and to appreciate the interpretations of the various printers in an of themselves. The more I think about it, the more this seems like the best way to handle previously unprinted negatives of deceased photographers...."
David Dyer-Bennet: "Are the vintage Maier prints her own work, or custom prints? If not, if they're just run-of-the-mill lab prints, they don't say anything about her ideas of printing the images."
Mike replies: A very good point. In fact, it might have been the reason she didn't routinely print her work—because she couldn't get it done to her satisfaction. (My dissatisfaction with drugstore prints was the reason I set up my first darkroom, so I sympathize.)
We have to bear in mind that lots of photographers work in less than ideal ways because it's expensive to do it right and they can't afford it.
I once attended a lecture at an Edward Weston show. The prints were obviously made on many different kinds of photo paper, and the lecturer discussed how Weston's interpretation was carefully matched to his materials on a case-by-case basis. Which I think was complete bullshit. Much more likely, he couldn't afford paper and picked up whatever remnant or odd lot of printing paper came his way, and then printed on what he had. Again, I'd been there and done that. That's the way it was for many of my friends at the time, too.
I suspect lack of funds is also why Vivian left behind so many unprocessed rolls of color film as well. She just couldn't afford to get them all processed and printed or proofed.
William: "I recently saw I saw John Maloof's Finding Vivian Maier as well. It is an excellent movie. Maier created the work and Maloof edited it. When you view Maier's home movies, you realize Maloof edited her stills appropriately. Vivian Maier was truly incapable of editing her own work. She was mentally ill-suited for the task. But it is her work. She made the work. Maier is the one who carried the cameras everywhere. She is the one who interacted with her subjects. She filled the frame and she operated the shutter. Maloof invested a great deal of time, effort and money trying to understand Maier. Maloff just didn't start cranking out images hoping to make money and obtain fame. He worked to attempt to understand her. It is better to see her work through his editing than to see none of it."
Gary Nylander: "I though this might be of interest in regards to this article. When photographer Brett Weston turned 80 he destroyed all of his negatives by burning them. He is quoted as saying (from an Associated Press article, December 18, 1991), 'Nobody can print it the way I do. It wouldn't be my work." He went on to say, 'The prints are posterity, not the negatives,' and 'Make that clear. It's my personal work. Nobody can print it.' For some photographers, like Mr.Weston, it's a very clear-cut issue—no one but themselves can print their negatives."
Mike replies: Very true, and a good point. But then, Ansel Adams donated his negatives to the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in part so that students might try to print them and interpret them in their own ways. The CCP archivists don't allow that to happen, because the negatives are too valuable, but that was his idea. Everybody's got a different idea.