Lots of buzz around Vivian Maier lately. First I am happy that the Kickstarter project is now funded. Kudos to John Maloof for what he accomplished so far and wish him good luck for what is to follow. That is a thrilling task for him, but also a sort of heavy burden, with high expectation as well some risks of all sorts, for him and Maier’s potential legacy.
Anyway at this point I want to address some basic points which are recurring in the discussions.
Why did she remain unknown all these years ?
That seems to be an easy question, or better said a question for which it is easy to provide elusive and vague explanations, such as “she was shy, she was private etc…”, in other words it had to do with her personality and personal motives (*). But I believe a key and objective factor lies simply in the fact that she was not a professional photographer i.e. she did not earn her living out of making photographs in some way (I don’t necessarily mean her street photographs). I don’t know of any historical photographer that was a pure hobbyist. Maybe in the earliest stage of photography history. Even for those who does/did a clear separation between their commercial work and their artistic work it provides a network, connections of all sorts etc…. But I believe that if you are not that critically involved (i.e. earning your living) in making photographs then the odds are less than low that you will get some decisive exposure of your work at the right time. It is probably less true today (with the internet), but IMO remains a very strong factor. Maybe a close profile to Maier was Helen Levitt. She was very private, not keen to promote her work aggressively etc… But the difference is that at an early point she decided to be professional, making films and photographs, and then she did some decisive encounters (HCB, Walker Evans). From a trivial and daily situation point of view Vivian Maier was a nanny before being a photographer. Nothing wrong with that of course but the real question is not why did she remain unknown but instead why did she decide (or was forced) to remain a nanny.
Was she “great” ?
I am not sure that this question is really meaningful. First, what does “being great” mean ? Is it about the work, or about the work and more than the work ? I am afraid that even if the work is stunning something is missing to establish a reputation or a position if you are not influential. Imagine that we discover today an unknow hobbyist photographer who did the same sort of things as Eggleston at the same time, but with a distinctive style. What would the Art-World say about it ? Probably something like “these are great photographs”, an exhibition or two would be set-up, some discussions will occur … and then what ? Where is the influence ? who are the followers ? One day one will probably be able to qualify Maier’s work (I hope so), to say that she was genuinely a great shooter or just an average one. But one thing is sure, with her work having remained stored in boxes all that time she was not influential. And now in 2011 it is too late for her work to become truly influential. I believe we have to elude that question or” greatness” or position in the photography history, but instead all we have to do his focus on the work itself.
What about the documentary value of her work ?
The work is documentary… so what ? Every vernacular photograph is documentary of something. Photography is by essence documentary. There are loads of archive of unknown photographers that have a fair documentary value. Does that mean that every snapshot done on a street corner refurbished since then deserves to be hang in museums ? Of course not. If VM’s work sheer value is just documentary it does not really stand out IMO. In fact most historical street photography has few genuine documentary value. It may have such value as a side effect but it is not what counts. If you are interested in woman’s fashion through the 60’s or airport architecture I am sure there are better (and easier to reach) sources than Winogrand’s “Women are beautiful” or “Arrivals and Departures”.
(*) With the element we know about her story so far no-one can state that she never tried to show her work one day. Maybe she did, maybe she had bad feedback and that has affected her…
To conclude at this (early) stage…
I love Vivian Maier’s work that has been shown so far. I love it NOT because it tells me about the place and the time shot (frankly I don’t care that much), I love it NOT because there is a possibility that she was a shooter in the same league as historical figures, along with Levitt, HCB or Klein. But I love it because I feel the work is complex, much more complex than the average street shooter comes up with, I love it because I feel it tells about its author. I love it simply because I think some images are visually great and were created by a strong eye. And I am curious about that, I wish some serious discussion and opinions will focus on that. That is what counts the most for me, the images.
I think that *we* (those who dig VM’s work) should be modest in our expectations to see Maier acknowledged as an important figure in the photography history because in a sense she has missed it. It is better to focus on the work, celebrate it the way it deserves, and make sure it won’t be forgotten after the initial buzz is passed.