Thursday, January 26, 2012

Vivian Maier and Vernacular Photography

I first stumbled across Vivian Maier’s black and white street scenes at Mass MoCA over the summer and had the opportunity to re-visit her work this past weekend at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in midtown Manhattan. By now, everyone is familiar with the story behind this work. Maier worked as a nanny and had a passion for photography. Her time off was primarily spent photographing people on the streets of Chicago.  She died in 2009, leaving a storage locker full of tens of thousands of negatives and thousands of exposed but undeveloped rolls of film. At an estate sale, a Chicago real estate agent and amateur historian named John Maloof purchased the contents of the locker for $400. Realizing the significance of Maier’s work, Maloof began to scan and print the negatives, eventually exhibiting the work. You can read the full details of the story at the Vivian Maier website, as well as see many examples of her extraordinary work there. The degree to which Maier’s work has found rapid popularity and wide exposure is phenomenal. It is easy to see why: the work itself is excellent, her story and the story of her discovery are compelling, and her work coheres stylistically and in content with what many of the top photographers of her generation were doing.

As interesting as the images are  -- and her work has been compared to that of Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Helen Levitt among others – equally fascinating is how little is known about Maier’s life and her motivation for taking these pictures. She printed very few of the negatives. There is no record that she ever showed the images to anyone. When she shot, she typically took only one frame per subject. And then there are the thousands of undeveloped rolls. Roberta Smith in her NY Times review interprets these last two points as a sign of confidence in her ability to get the shot. I’m not convinced of that. That could also be explained by simple economy or an urge to accumulate. Maier was a hoarder, compulsively collecting and organizing newspapers and items she picked up off the street. Pictures of the interior of her apartment show all the rooms – including the bathroom -- filled with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. It seems the way she approached the material aspects of her photography parallels whatever impulse motivated the hoarding.

At its most fundamental, photography is about sharing, an extension of pointing and saying “look at this” or “remember this.” Why didn’t Maier share? Did she ever intend to show the work? Or was this project obsessively personal? Was she collecting moments, faces, and places? Or was the act of taking the pictures a means of connection, of expressing empathy for the people she photographed? Of course, it can be both a bringing in and a reaching out. As I wonder about Maier’s motivations, another set of questions emerges: how is it that her photographs are so good? Was she familiar with the work of the photographers to which she is now compared?  Maier is obviously gifted, but usually this level of visual sophistication is preceded by years of practice and training. Is there evidence of her process of growth? We’ll probably never know, unless a diary turns up.

And is this just the tip of the iceberg? The bulk of her work remains in its negative state, so we may be treated to more and more as the film gets processed, scanned and printed. To my knowledge, this situation in its scale is unique: an unknown photographer’s entire body of work is posthumously presented and marketed, without any precedence for how the images should be printed, or any sense of how the photographer might have edited the work. It seems like John Maloof, who controls the majority of Maier’s images, is treating her work with the appropriate care. Certainly, he has done a great service in bringing this marvelous work to light. 

There is something that nags at me about all this, and I’m not sure what it is. I felt it the first time I learned about Vivian Maier: perhaps it is the idea that someone else is profiting from her work when she did not herself. The Maloof Collection is authenticating and copyrighting all the images, which substitutes for the signature of the artist. There may be a technical or legal reason for doing it this way, but that feels odd to me: he may own it, but it is her work. It would sound better if the authentication and copyright was done through an entity like the Vivian Maier Foundation, which existed apart from the commercial interest in the work. In his defense, hearing Maloof speak about his efforts during a lecture at PowerHouse Books in December gave the impression that his heart is in the right place and that he is genuinely interested in her work. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that she is not able to share in the affirmation of her work, and disappointing that she didn’t share it with others during her life.

Vivian Maier: Photographs from the Maloof Collection closes at Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 E. 57th St., on January 28. A concurrent exhibition of her work at the Steven Kasher Gallery, 521 W. 23rd St. remains open through February 25.

At Ziehersmith, Other Bodies: A Collection of Vernacular Photography provides a point of comparison. On display is a selection of 65 images from a collection of around 2,000 that were accumulated (the press release says “from a wide variety of sources” – I take this to mean yard sales, flea markets and the like) by artist Jason Brinkerhoff and curated by gallery owner Scott Zieher. These images are “found” images, the makers typically are unknown and they most frequently record images from everyday life. Many of the images are notable for what is wrong in the picture: accidents of composition or the kind of displacement in which the subject seems simultaneously both strange and familiar. There are some visually remarkable images in this exhibition, but a good deal are more interesting for their sociological content than their aesthetics. Unlike the work of Vivian Maier, which is surrounded by questions about authorship, the images in Other Bodies seem to be authored less by the people behind the camera and more by means of photography itself.

Other Bodies: A Collection of Vernacular Photography at Ziehersmith, 515 W. 20th St., runs through February 11, 2012. 


  1. Interesting post and thoughts on her motivations - I didn't realize so much remains undeveloped!

  2. It was my impression that Mayloof purchased the negatives two years before Maier's death. She was in a hospital or hospice. Mayloof was tempted to visit her but decided that it would be an intrusion on a very sick woman.
    This information comes from the Powerhouse talk.
    I fully agree with your feelings about the work and how it is being distributed.

    1. That is my recollection too. She was unable to pay the fee for her storage locker and the contents were auctioned off. I think Maloof didn't find Maier's name in one of the boxes of negatives until shortly before she died.

  3. So strange to take such beautiful photos of people you know or want to remember and not see them(or show them to people).....well, I know a few people who have bags of unprocessed film in their fridge. It's not cheap to develop. I mean she kept them for a reason. Maybe she was waiting to develop them.
    Buying a persons storage that they can't afford to pay and keeping the contents is a little sad. Although thank goodness he did. Does she have a family? Hum.
    Anyway I love how photographs have a way of making people seem like they are still alive.
    Stories like this are so intriguing. Reminds me a little of Henry Darger

  4. Hi, There is an aspect of this case which has bothered me too since seeing a film on the Imagine BBC series about Vivian Maier.

    As the writer above points out, John Maloof has done everything correctly in the legal sense and has also brought to the world's attention Maier's fabulous photographs and fascinating story. He has meticulously printed her negs how she had them printed and has short edition runs of the prints.

    However, this work is bigger than one person. In order for Maier and her works to be given the full respect and acclaim they surely deserve, I agree that there should be a Vivian Maier Foundation. Perhaps a semi-governmental and / or non-profit-making body to take charge of the myth and the images and their public dissemination. I believe there is an empty house owned by Vivian Maier in the village where she grew up in France. What a good start it would be to buy the house and renovate it as part of Maier's legacy - there must be some sort of arts trust or a philanthropist able to do this.
    While I believe Mr Maloof is entitled to profit from his lucky find and has treated it with respect, it would be wonderful to see a BIG gesture - selling / offering the body of work to an appropriate body. Perhaps someone should seed the idea??
    BJ London

  5. Hi, Thank you for your interesting article. I first heard of Vivian Maier on BBC TV in London last year, a film on her life and work broadcast as part of the Imagine series. It was intriguing indeed.
    I have been vexed since watching the film. You rightly point out that Mr Maloof has acted totally legally; he has done his best to print Maier's photos in the same fashion as she printed her work. He has also brought her to the world's attention and organised exhibitions. As he took a gamble he is entitled to profit from his discovery.

    However, however,.. let's imagine if this were Henri Cartier-Bresson. Would this be how we would wish his work and legacy to be disseminated? From private hands, through private galleries? With one individual holding the reins of his legacy?

    I too believe that what is needed is a Vivian Maier Foundation to secure the future legacy of Maier. Perhaps a philanthropic or semi-governmental body. Perhaps Mr Maloof would also be able to see this need and perhaps establish such a foundation himself. Perhaps there needs to be a bequest to buy up all the negatives and anything connected to Maier. She owns still an empty house in the village in France where she grew up - what better way to start a foundation than by buying the house and restoring it to its condition when Maier lived there. Then establishing a gallery there. Small first step. How can interested people start to achieve this goal?
    B J

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you write that Maloof should establish the foundation, and even serve as it's director. I can only imagine that given the ambitious scope of the subsequent promotion and marketing of Maier's work that lawyers were consulted from the beginning. So perhaps there was a legal reason to set up the copyright of her work in his name rather than hers. But as a photographer, the current arrangement feels odd.