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Friday, 07 January 2011


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We were arguing about the contest winner? Arguing? I thought we were all in violent agreement that it was crap. Mike, next time you're in the UK, let me invite you to be a fly on the wall during a company strategy planning meeting (the outcome of which is briefed to both the company and investors in terms of the epitome of agreement). It'll shock you.

I prefer Vivian Maier's take on the "Faceless man asleep against a neutral background". Square format and the endless interest of those breaking waves. I'm sure Ctein would've zoomed in to explore the stochastic patterns of the water, and on that, and in this case, I fully agree with him. ;>

There are some awesome pictures there.

Wow! The pose of the guy resting is almost identical. I agree this is a better photo. Including more of the surroundings gives context to the image. I guess I'm old fashioned. I like photos that actually communicate better than ones that puzzle me and require explanation to be comprehensible.

Vivian is the hardest working, non living photographer of all time. She just keeps churning out winner after winner- Nonstop...

No one will dissuade me from the feeling that after the dust settles (since all of us are relatively new to her work), we are looking at the best photographer of the 20th century, and hence, probably of all time.

I just finished watching this and looking at this when your post popped up in my reader. Some real gems in there.

"#9 (shown above), in my opinion, is a much better photograph than the controversial contest winner we were arguing about a few months back."

You're a master of understatement on this, Mike.

Every one of those images is cropped and it's ticking me off..very important in this case because the dame's working the square

Are the images we've been seeing the result of negative scans, or had prints been made, recently or during Ms. Maier's lifetime? Did she do any darkroom work herself?

David, how do you know the images are cropped? Are proof sheets viewable somewhere?

When I viewed them earlier the viewer with the article itself-the small screen had all the images cropped to a horizontal..the behaviour is correct now. Could have been just ME though so I wont delve.

I'll take #12 in light of The Sartorialist. Reminds me of my grandmother and her sisters always having dead animals hanging off their shoulders when dressed for the holidays.

Yah, you had to stir that pot again didn't you, yuh gawdang literalist.


Keep up with the stories as they come out. The images are wonderful. They mention she also did color so I hope all of the rolls can even be processed. What kind of issues, due to the age of the unprocessed exposed rolls, can be expected?

Another fun point that could come out, is if people can identify themselves, past relatives, or friends in the images.

A book of her photos will be worth buying.


On the photo you used. I was thinking of the line: Time and tide wait for no man.


That's a terribly sad story, in its way. Especially the undeveloped rolls; I strongly suspect those are indicative of financial straits. It also sounds like a rather lonely life, from the little I've heard.

Part of the the visual grandeur of this woman's amazing legacy that gets little mention (or not mention enough) is that since most of her work was not even developed- she was previsualizing, editing and printing all in her mind's eye. Roll after roll, year after year, winning shot after winning shot...

That "ability" alone is enough to inspire absolute awe and wonder! How many photographers of any capability would be able to produce noteworthy results of any caliber operating in such a vacuum?

I disagree somewhat about those two "resting" photos. I kind of liked the first one better; the loaf of bread got me. The whole enigma of it got me. There's no enigma here, just a guy lying on the beach.

And while I think Maier is a good enough photographer, I certainly don't think she's one of the greats of the 20th Century. She's like that other intriguing Chicago unknown, Henry Darger -- not great, but way too good to be unknown.


@StanB -- from the interviews with people who knew her (these appeared in Chicago magazine, which can be found from TOP's original link), she at first developed her own film in her bathroom at the home where she worked. The accumulating undeveloped boxes of film, Winogrand-style, seems to have been a development later in her life.

There is also a picture of some of the photo books in her collection that John Maloof has unpacked and shelved. She was certainly aware of other artists, but never in personal contact with any other street photographers in her time. I'd love to see the list of the photobooks she owned.


Thanks for this and The Sartorialist links Mike - amongst the shots at the VM item, no. 18 is just astonishingly beautiful.

The world viewed through a rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera is so different to our present to the view. I used my friends rolli for a week or two in the 1970's it was such a pleasure seeing a whole picture on the waist level ground glass screen as opposed to my pentax eye level tiny viewing angle. If only I had known then the interest in pictures there would be in 40 years time! Ah well.
Minolta 7D still going strong

>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. <

Need to disagree. #9 is plain, explicit, and as such almost boring. 'The contest winner' is ambivalent, arcane, and the much better photograph.

I think there are some good and some great photos shown and I like her work, a lot: it tunes in with what I like doing with my photography, only I haven't put that type of picture on my website because I think they need to mature a little and wouldn't be well received--most of my prints go into the popular consumerist market (for the UK this is pretty conservative) and I can't afford to exhibit what I really like. And here is an observation: does the discovery of this body of work say more now than it would have done in the '50's and '60's ? I don't know, but they are, for me, as good as the best I have yet seen and far more enjoyable and inspirational than 'equivalent' contemporary offerings which often appear contrived. (Maybe we have more public constraints now).
By the way I am in no way comparing my abilities here--except as something to aspire to--just saying they have resonance for what I like to do on a Rolleiday (which would be most days given a choice).
Thanks Mike.

Pity that hat isn't a loaf, though.

John C...

Really? Well, I'll thumb wrestle you over that statement.

At this point, apparently, we haven't even seen a thumbnail's worth of her work. Seems like a good chunk of what might make her "great" is that she seemed to be incredibly prolific. I think your judgement on "not great" is way premature.

I sense that this body of work, once unfolded, is going to be, at the very least, one of the most important documents of a period in history. Art? I see her working towards something here...And, more importantly, within the context of her peers at the time, she has a place with quite a few of her contemporaries..some of whom you might refer to as great. I dunno.


Drove down from Madison to
Chicago last night for the opening reception at the Chicago Cultural Center. Fantastic show. The kind of buzz for photography in Chicago that can only be for the good.

Well, there is just no accounting for taste, is there.

I find #9 a nearly perfect picture, and the 'contest winner' almost a worthless snapshot, but others -honestly, and with educated criteria- may feel the opposite.

Is there anything objective, reliable in art critique? Sometimes I get really confused. Honest, no pund intended, it's only a sad feeling I get...

Color me ashamed. For all I try to eschew gadgeteering, I still lust in my heart. Then Ms. Maier's photograph's return and I'm reminded what a dedicated person can do with simple equipment. I feel small...again.

There are some wonderful pictures here. There are a lot more that I think are not so special. In general I think I like Gary Stochl's work better, perhaps because I've seen less of it -- which could be a result of more careful editing. I worry that somebody or somebodies smell an art gold mine with Maier's work and are doing a fantastic job of building buzz that will pay off for them in the long run.

Helluva night that one must have been!

I shudder to think that one of these days, someone might discover a trove of Kodachrome slides by a talented photographer (known or unknown), and alongside it a box of undeveloped Kodachrome.

@Scott- Thanks for the clarification. But although she apparently did develop two thirds of her 100,000 negs, seems there's no mention of there even being contact sheets. So there remains a major question as to how she was able to accurately measure her progress as to her own aesthetic goals and ideals.

It's still way too early to state just how great Ms. Maier's legacy is in the scheme of things. We don't even know the full extent of her work as of yet. At the start, she was just some found quirk that somehow managed to take a few good "lucky" shots. Then the consistency and quantity of her work began to match its quality. Now we're talking about where she fits in photographic history- what a ride! A premier quality street shooter who preceded Arbus, Winogrand et al...

@ toto
Not so fast. Although most of Vivian Maier's shown work has been b&w mf she also shot quite a bit of 35mm color slides...Kodachrome, I think. I just saw some prints of some excellent prints of some of this work and, yes, it kicks ass just as her b&w does. So hold the phone!

I can see taking a wait-and-see stance because the work is novel to us now and that it hasn't settled into a context yet. Initially one wants to make sure the story is true. Then we're going "Wow!" because we haven't seen the work before. We know it's good, but it is hard to say how good. It is difficult to immediately judge how it will stand in the history of its genre.

That said, I don't agree that it's right to discount Vivian Maier because she didn't have influence at the time she made her photos. There is plenty of art that is more influential after its creator's demise than during the artist's life.

Likely the determining factor here will be John Maloof and others efforts toward stewardship of the collection.


Can't agree with Ken Tanaka's idea that you have to be in the game to be great. What if she now has an influence, does that then make her work great? No clear logic on his argument there. Sport is a competition. The early pro tennis players had to forgo their place in the amateur contest record books. Photography and poetry are not like that.

Meanwhile it is fascinating to see so much from the perspective of a TLR.

Interesting debate, and I can see Ken T.'s point regarding curators and their concern with the narrative of photography's evolution and the intertextuality ("intervisuality"?--to coin a phrase) that operates between active "players" in a particular milieu or period. However, I tend to go a bit more with Mike on this one. At the risk of being postmodern, historians do "create history"--at least certain kinds of history. For example, we can all think of highly influential people who directly influence our lives. In the future though, the meaning of those people and their actions are a result of interpretations by those willing to invest the time and effort to make an argument.

At the lower end of the social spectrum, "daily life" histories of workers, immigrants and slaves, women's histories, material cultural history, and so forth, have become prominent, because historians have argued for the value of this data to our understanding of our shared past. When these kinds of studies first appeared, they directly challenged established visions of "who should be seen as players" in our histories. This occurred because someone or a group of interpreters had different visions of history, and we willing to argue strongly for them.

In other words, sadly, academics (and curators, too) can fall into ruts of interpretation, and there are times when calls for a rethinking from "non-professionals" have real value. (Although, we can do without the snotty comments, of course.)

As for V.M.'s "greatness," I'd say the jury is still out. I have not seen her work, and I do not feel qualified to say whether her are truly unique, or just excellent examples of extant photograph genres in street photography. However, as can be the case with posthumous discoveries, we should wait and see if her work inspires present or future generations of photographers.

C'mon, it's 2011. Let's get unreal.

I will disagree with the argument 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." Her "day" wasn't during her lifetime. Her day is happening right now are we're all lucky enough to have seats in the middle of the action as it gets under way. Whatever influence she will have has yet to fully develop.

We shouldn't get worked up about whether she is (or isn't) getting or deserves "respect." Let's all just breath her work in deeply. Taste it, savor it, ponder it. And let's see where it takes us.

I'm at somewhat of a loss over the issue of "influence"; I'm not sure of its relevance to any artist's output. Not all artists are teachers. Some artists are so individual as to preclude direct influence, and some are misunderstood in their own time. Van Gogh, Chas. Burchfield, Ivan Albright. The printing issue is confusing, also, as many photographers have not been involved with, or were not great printers. HCB, Winogrand and all his undeveloped rolls, and wasn't R. Frank considered a somewhat "sloppy" printer?

Regarding influence: I would suspect she will have lots moving forward. Although hers won't date back as far as some of the established greats, she'll be on equal footing with any viewer who is newly coming to photography. Frank's influence may date back many years but if you're only seeing The Americans for the first time today his influence on you only begins then.
As for the playing by yourself argument, while I'd agree that the thought has merit when you're talking about sports, it certainly doesn't when it comes to art. If, for whatever reason, a pianist with the skill of Glenn Gould or Michel Petrucciani practises his craft for years but never chooses to share it, does it make him any less influential if his work ultimately comes to light?
I think it's all relative. While Maier doesn't have the historical influence Bruce Davidson or Danny Lyon does, moving forward it's reasonable to put her on equal footing with all of them. I think the fact that someone who admits he had less than a passing knowledge of photography knew he had something special when he saw it speaks volumes about the impact of Maier's work.

PS, Ken, I usually am in agreement with you, though coming from the prepatorial end, I'm not predisposed to defend curators, and to fracture a JS Sargent quote, a curator is someone who thinks the painting is hung an eigth of an inch too far to the left.

I am not give to making comments on wb sites but I have been following the Vivian Maier discussion with some interest.

A couple of thoughts:
Is it necessary to be in the public domain at the time of one's death to be a great artist?
If so where does that leave Vincent van Gogh?

Is it necessary to be influential during one's lifetime to be a great artist?
The list of artist's whose work became recognised post mortem is long. Should be discard them because their work was not recognised during their life time?

I don't believe so, finding Ken Tanaka's reasoning curious to say the least.

In the end I chose not to go to the opening last night.

I have read so much, seen about as much of her work online that exists... and had so much stuff forwarded to me that I started to get dizzy. It is a truly wonderful story of a dedicated and talented photographer that is likely just getting going. There is a bit of civic pride about her here in Chicago among some and so be it.

I just can't wait to walk through the show this week all by myself with nobody else around.

Just me and those wonderful photos.

"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."

Ken keeps digging the logical hole he is in deeper and deeper.

Mike mentions Atget & Berenice Abbot; another instance of very late recognition was Lartigue. But the stories of both these photographers support the point about "see[ing] your work into its intended final form". Atget did make his "documents for artists" prints and Lartigue did make his albums and that is how their work was (eventually) seen. What was it that led to Maier not printing her extraordinary work?

This is such a fascinating story, that's only going to get better as more negs are scanned and printed. Already VM has shown an incredible eye; imagine the solo show she'll be able to put on after 50,000 more negs have been scanned and printed.

Artists working in obscurity is nothing new, and takes away nothing from this work.

It's incredible.

I think she is one of the most important photographers of the 20th Century. Period.
The idea of a recluse fine artist painter or “visionary” artist, working with paint, clay, or junk, is acceptable. One that does not sell or show work but, after death is discovered and becomes known through the efforts of a champion, is an old fine art story.
But for photography, the idea that one takes great pictures and does not show them (commercial photographers) and does not print them (Cartier Bresson) and does not develop all the rolls before death (many photographers) - is a new one.
The discussion here should be about recluse photographers who do not show and what that means.
Additionally, she was a woman when women who were not married at that time were old maids and perhaps on the lowest rung of all the rungs in society. She was a nanny to boot. Couple that with her purported stinging personality and, maybe she simply did not have the desire or capability at that time to show her work. Since she had no training and never had a show, could she have mounted a show from thin air? Gallery support was probably not there for her social position at the time. Sadly.

I don't agree with Ken. Why say "never"? In photography, the "game" can go on well after you're gone. Her influence may be in the future.

In contrast to Ken T's remarks regarding her part in the history of photography, the thing that strikes me most strongly is that Ms. Maier labored year after year, pursuing her singular vision with no visible support from the art or photography communities, no critical acclaim, no public recognition, and no financial remuneration. I'm not privy to her motivation, but as her story unfolds it might just turn out to be the perfect example of art and creativity in their purest, and by extension, their most valuable forms.

Saw the exhibit today....stunning work. Regarding the comments from Ken T - enough have rebutted already. Regardless,this much is true: From all we know so far, Vivian was a true artist, not concerned with the commerce side of "art", whatever that entails. Curators can do what they like, it will not diminsh my respect for her achievements one bit. She has already left a lasting impression on me as a photographer as deep as Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Callahan, or anyone else who became "famous". Fame matters not in the end, it is only a form of fashion, and fashion passes. Vivian herself is recorded saying that life is a wheel, when we pass on, it's someone elses turn ti pick it up and move it forward....

It makes you wonder how many others like her produced amazing work in anonymity but will never be discovered because their families tossed into the trash all those boxes of old negatives "Uncle Bob" had made.

Is she great. "Only if curators think so." Are these photographers? Are they the people she photographed for? NO.
Curators are at the edge of boredom looking for newness to excite their jaded palates. These curators are also the ones who put on shows of 'celebrity' photographers images which have never been seen before (because they are no where near as good as the previously exhibited images). Curators are hooked on celebrity as opposed to quality.

In the overall history of our lives VM can and will influence us. To dismiss her because she didn't influence her contemporaries is beyond sad. (There are many many great but 'dead' artists who continue to influence us and who at their time could NOT influence their contemporaries because communications were not what they are today. No one would attempt to deny them their greatness despite their lack of celebrity during their lifetimes.)

This all heads towards the old chestnut what is art (and who is a great artist). In this modern world their is only space for 'X' celebrity artists and they are chosen by curators. This is the most critical reason you should work for your own reasons. History will very very soon forget the curators.

Or maybe we'll find out that the Vivian Maier story is an elaborate hoax and all the photos were staged over the past few years and shot by commercial pros, with this beach shot a very clever wink at the controversial contest winner.

Check the framing; there's room for a Gap logo on every one of them.


If the album cover I was reading this morning is accurate then at the time of his death J S Bach was known more as a musician than a composer.
His son's compositions were better known and respected until the elder Bach was rediscovered in the nineteenth century.
I think that ultimately it's the work that endures more than how it's maker may have interacted with his or her peers.
An interesting exercise for TOP readers might be to make a list of mediocre photographers who had a strong effect on their contemporaries.
I'm not inclined to add to such a list as it's Sunday morning, I'm in a great mood and I have a date with Pablo Casals and The Marlboro Festival Orchestra.

I can't say enough about the quality level of work I've seen regarding the Maier photographs. Doesn't matter to me what curators think of it, or her place in the pantheon of photographic artists. It's the personal impact that counts. If I had any money, I'd certainly buy a print, but even broke, I'd buy a comprehensive book.

As others have said on other blogs, she PRE-DATES Winogrand, and for a lot of time, Frank as well; and that's "nuff-said". The more you know and understand about art education in colleges, the more you can understand the "blah" response from some of the curators. It's unforgivable, and an example of everything wrong with that type of education. Nobody in any position as valuable as the curatorship of photography for a major institution should be anything but guardedly positive and enthusiastic over a find like this, and if I were the boss of that person in Chicago, I'd start second-guessing my hiring of someone that blaise about a find that key to the history of my city...

The idea that she had neither the ego or interest in pushing herself as an artist at the same time she was doing the work (and at a time that even the idea of photography as art was in question), adds to her cachet, it doesn't detract from it!

Not enough has been said about Maloof. A real estate guy looking for photos to help illustrate a book he was working on, discovering this, and going through the process of educating himself to understand more and more about art, the business of art, and the idea of this persons work in the context of photographic art; and taking it upon himself to try and do the best he can to catalog and scan it, financed mostly on his own. Isn't this type of interest and reaction we all want people to have when viewing art?

In rebuttal to the claim "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." I second Mike's response in one word: Atget.

I suspect my recent post was one of the "amateur photo forums" mentioned by Ken above so I'd like to clarify. In that post I called out Colin Westerbeck for declaring Maier's work "fairly average for the time period" (slightly paraphrasing). This seems to me like a horrendous misjudgment, which I noted.

I understand curators and collectors operate under different pressures and influences. Certainly at this point it's premature to expect shows or wings or inclusion in the canon. But honestly, can anyone looking at Maier's work dispute the notion that she was among the elite street photographers? To call her average seems to completely miss the boat.

Interesting read of Ken Tanaka and Mike's debate. After looking the work of VM, I don't see how anyone cannot be impressed, wheather dead or alive.

I don't agree with Mr. Tanaka's analogy about being "in the game." Since when did photography become a team sport?

Dear Ken,

I think the job of curators should be to find whatever is unusually good (and they can tell us why they think so, if they want) and let the public see it. History will judge whether the artists are exceptional. To counter-argue by analogy (sorry, Mike) it is irrelevant whether Brod thought that Kafka was merely competent or truly one of the greatest. The important thing is that he did not destroy the manuscripts and had them published instead. And in the end it mattered not at all that Kafka did not influence anybody (in the realm of literature) while he was alive.


But Van Gogh didn't influence much at his time either, well, maybe his brother, but that was all...
To me, Ms Maier's images are amongst the most inspiring and revealing I have seen in many years.

Christopher Wright wrote:

"Is it necessary to be in the public domain at the time of one's death to be a great artist?
If so where does that leave Vincent van Gogh?

Is it necessary to be influential during one's lifetime to be a great artist?
The list of artist's whose work became recognised post mortem is long. Should be discard them because their work was not recognised during their life time?

I don't believe so, finding Ken Tanaka's reasoning curious to say the least."

I personally am in almost complete agreement with Ken. I think is IS necessary to be known by your contemporaries to be considered a great artist, although it is not necessary to be known to later be considered an "exceptionally good" artist. Vincent Van Gogh was quite well known by his contemporaries, and actually lived with Gauguin for a while. He also became *quite* well known to general audiences within a short time of his death...so short a time that he did influence his contemporaries.

Art is like a stream, and it goes on, with artists influencing each other all along the way. That's why it's almost impossible to think there could arise now a "great" Impressionist -- Impressionism is done, and its influence has been felt, and art has moved on. There are people who paint in an Impressionist style, but they are applying a technique to a scene, and they are not really discovering anything.

As another example, there was an extremely fine artist name Artemisia Gentileschi who painted in the style of Caravaggio, a generation after Caravaggio, and some of her individual paintings of the same subjects I believe were as good as his...but she was using a technique and style that he created and developed, and that a lot of artists picked up, and so she will never be considered as great an artist as he was. It's like Thomas Edison created the light bulb, and lots of people then made it better, but we don't celebrate them as great inventors.

I really don't believe that "the list of artists who became recognized post-mortem is long." Actually, most of the good ones were recognized at the time they were painting, may then have fallen into obscurity, and then have come back -- Vermeer is an example of that -- but the great ones were not obscure during their lifetimes. At least, I can't think of any. I can think of quite a few examples of the opposite, of artists celebrated in their time, who are now considered not so good.

As far as Maier is concerned (and Ken's point), I look at her photos and don't see anything that would really influence street shooters today; and she didn't influence any of her own time, because she didn't make her work public. That doesn't mean she wasn't a fine photographer. She was.

But to go a step beyond what Ken as has said, I have not seen any photos by her that I think would put her in a class with Walker Evans, or Robert Frank, or Diane Arbus, or Harry Callahan.


'[...] historical narrative of photography' - I know what narrative means generally speaking, and I am aware of the special meaning of the term in art history (not to mention 'narratology'), but shouldn't the visual arts, including photography, be enjoyed, at the end of the day, without words or language getting in between? And if so, don't we end up then with an entirely different way of, let's say, structuring photography, than via the rather narrow path of their 'historical narrative'?

Wow. I could not disagree with Ken Tanaka's comment more. Her skill as a photographer has nothing to do with whether she "played" in the game or not. Nothing. In fact in some respects I have more respect for her for not playing in the game.

"...for one simple reason; she was not influential in her day. She was a loner and not part of the game...."

Without opining on the merits of this artist, the foregoing criteria would exclude such influential visual artists as Van Gogh and El Greco or others such as Bartok (music) and Kafka (literature).

I do not agree with that "plaing the game" analogy either. To me it will always be the artistic merit, combined with the artist's personal purpose.

Dire Straits did a pleasant song about the VM phenomenon on their first album called "In the Gallery". Easy listening for a Sunday too...

Should have posted a link - here it is:


I wonder about Mike's argument that VM needed to culminate her photographic statement with prints. I'm not sure if the metaphor applies but I can't helping thinking about the great classical composers who, for obvious reasons, have no recordings or "prints" of their performances, just scores.

Hye, Louis.
I do not think we truly comprehend the scope of w curator's work.
Thing is they are also responsible for the commercial success of the exhibition, and have to pass several filters before the exhibition goes on to the public. This is specially true for public exhibitions where funding is pretty scarce. Hence the need of a star figure to need the public in. Quite similar to the latest pirelli calendar, designed for the (most probably) urban pretentious connoisseur.

We did have this discussion before with that photographer of very detailed scale models. Perhaps this time, her value is that of being an artisan of photography as opposed to an artist who has a concept which is developed rather than industrious repeated

I think some of y'all are forgetting that she's not photographing in an antiquated or superseded style or mode--her style was current when she was working.


Dear Mike and Ken,

I don't feel qualified to comment on the “greatness” of the work, but I'm finding your meta-discussion extremely interesting. Adding in my own two cents worth…

Ken, I have trouble with your thesis about being a part of the game, as it were, being of paramount importance simply because it's too easy to come up with counterexamples. I'm not saying there isn't merit to the point, but I don't see how it can be the whole story. Just one of many factors, maybe not even the most important.

The impression I got from reading your commentary, possibly erroneously, is that you went to the show and on some level reacted with, “This is truly great work… but she's not going to go down as one of the Greats.” And having had that near-instinctive gut response, now you're trying to figure out why. Is that a fair or unfair take? It's a great question! But your answer doesn't seem sufficient.

Mike, I'd have to argue strongly that history is written by the historians. I don't mean that in a revisionist or postmodern sense. Just as a matter of factual interpretation. Oh, on the broadest and most superficial level, there are objective historical facts that one cannot dispute (unless one is a total whack job). To bring up a number of contentious ones over the past half-century or so, there is the US dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, there are the cultural and sexual revolutions in the US of the 1960s and 1970s, there is the unsuccessful US effort to prosecute a war in Southeast Asia in the same timeframe, there are the two Iraq wars and one Afghanistan war that the US has entered into in the past 20 years. Historians don't make those events, and they could hardly ignore them. But those are the most superficial and trivial of observations. They are merely the pointers and benchmarks.

Now ask the real and important historical questions: here are examples, for all the foregoing.

Was that a good or a bad idea?
Was it a beneficial (or not) event? (Very different questions, much like the difference between utility and morality–– all possible combinations of answers are possible).
What were the rationales behind each of those events by the instigators?
What was the rationale presented/sold to the public about each of those events?

That's what history is really about, not a rote recitation of dates and places. And I pretty much guarantee you that if you polled every single one of the tens of thousands of TOP readers on all the questions on all the historical points I mentioned, no two of them would agree in their answers. Of course, every single one of us is certain we know the right answer to all these questions.

And what are the odds?

The job of the historian is to dig out the facts not in evidence, sort the wheat from the chaff, try to put it all together into a sensible description, and figure out what “really” went on.

Now whether or not you want to believe that “really” is actual reality or just a construct by the historian gets you into all the philosophical and postmodern questions… we are soooo not going there. We shall not debate the nature of reality. But historical reality is not something that any of us get to observe directly, not being omnipresent and omniscient. All we get to know is history as it is told to us. And that is a creation of the historian, and different historians will disagree.

In the case of the world of art, where events are often even less tangible and objectively describable, the role of the historian is even more important. They are not the sole arbiter of what is truth and what is important… But they sure are the major players.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 


Re: "In the game".

Against whom does one play this game?

Eco said the novelist should die once he has completed his work, so as not to trouble the passage of the text. Maier has scrupulously followed this prescription. All our posturing and expostulating will do little to enhance or diminish her photographs, in the end.

Thanks Mike and Ken for a stimulating discussion. I have only this to add: man, do I love these pictures.

Curators are conscious of commercial aspect of exhibitions.
They are employees and have to boost the income of their institution or else they get fired. This is why they schedule bad art by famous names or just as bad portraits of celebrities by 'name' photographers, irrespective of the quality of the image.

To Ctein

Regarding your comments on history, and the job of historians, you are of course correct. At an academic level, history is a serious evidence based subject and should be tackled with an open mind, free as far as possible from anthropological and political biases.

However this has never stopped the public at large from persisting to propagate historical myths, or politicians from exploiting them.

While that does not affect, by and large, the real academic work of historians, the acceptance and popularity of art and artists is more prone to subjective interpretation, fashion, polemical twists and the zeitgeist for the simple reason that it requires an audience, namely the art-appreciating public.

Many artists have great academic value but are relatively unknown, others are immensely popular but not terribly influential (I may cite JMW Turner and Salvador Dali as two prime examples).

Thanks to the internet, we are no longer dependent on the wise to decide what we should and should not see. To a large extent, mindful curators have to be sensitive to public opinion these days.

Judging from the reception on this forum alone, I can see her becoming established as a hugely popular artist through viral publicity alone, whatever her actual influence on the photography scene during her lifetime.

There are two reasons for this:

1. Her work, and her life story, are both accessible and poignant.

2. The body of work is such that it provides a uniquely detailed historical insight into a small but important part of the world, irrespective of its artistic merits.

Both of these are strong influencers regarding the popularity of photographic art.

I love VM's photos and find them very moving, but I wonder how much of that is nostalgia (for the period and the B&W square format), and the excellent composition. That is where I can accept Ken's question about her greatness.

I didn't "get" Frank, as his book seemed to be not much more than a collection of interesting period photographs, until I had it pointed out (by Mike?) that Frank had to be "read" in the context of Life Magazine's "social-realist" vision of 1950s America. Does VM rise to a similar significance?

But, I don't buy Ken's actual argument. I'll bet Winogrand's contact sheets had 10s of thousands of rejects; maybe not spray and pray, but you can't really claim that greatness comes from the skill shown by your rejects.

I think some of y'all are forgetting that she's not photographing in an antiquated or superseded style or mode--her style was current when she was working.

Seems to me that is the point: looking at her photographs, while there are a few that stand out a bit more than others, the overall impression is of the type of Rolleiflex that was done being done by "journeymen" (i.e., not outstanding) photographers of the period — somewhat equivalent to the photography of Dr. Paul Wolff with the Leica.

But look, in contrast, at Cartier-Bresson's whole set of photographs in The Decisive Moment, which is still as arresting a series as it was when that book was first published: if her photographs were of that concentrated quality and stood out in the same way against what was being done at the time she was photographing there would be no discussion about what her standing as a photographer should be.

Even more dramatically, taking the comparison to painting: if Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon were discovered today, it would still be the masterpiece that it is — in fact this painting wasn't shown until some 25 years after it was painted and was still revolutionary. Okay, perhaps it's not fair to compare her work to an iconic painting of the 20th century, but this does highlight the point about retroactive hype.


Interesting to read the various reactions to Maier's work. Regardless of whatever critical approval she will ever receive, I'm thrilled to see some of her photos. Thanks to Greg Brophy's recent post I have been reading Robert Henri's "The Art Spirit", another wonderful find. Henri's remark "Art is, after all, only a trace--like a footprint which shows that one has walked bravely and in great happiness" gave me another reason to be thankful that Maier's photos were found--our lives are made better by the traces of the brave and happy who've gone before us.

You know, this has been a really great year at TOP, all these discoveries....

Thanks for sharing this. I took a look at Vivian's images, simply amazing. They are all very powerful images, and could have easily been lost. I am saddened she is not able to see her work held at such acclaim.

Ok, I think Ken has a point. But perhaps from now on she will start influencing photographers & artist...

I stumbled upon Vivian Maier's work on Flickr, when the original thread Maloof first posted was still active, and was very taken with it. Seeing the work in the context of Flickr is illuminating. Maier's work is not dissimilar in intent from many, many photographers who post to Flickr, except in that it is consistently strong. Regarding influence: one gets the uncanny feeling that Maier had influenced a generation of Flickr photographers who only belatedly became aware of this fact after the photographs' publication.

The "art" of this work is in this context, in it's disquieting alienation - the work looks contemporary, with a contemporary point of view, but is not. The discovery is a sort of inversion of postmodernism. This feeling lead a few people to suspect the photos were fakes. Now, part of that is because of the means of production (scanning, Photoshop, inkjet prints) but also because Maier's sensibility seems to have been a step ahead of her time.

There are other archives making the rounds in art photography circles, so the debate of authorship and the canon will only get more heated.

ma sjekke:)

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