There are many things a curator might do, depending on circumstances. But, in one case in particular, a case of some interest to me, the curator is limited to precisely one job.
Suppose that you come in to possession of a collection of disorganized... stuff... as the result of someone's death. You might be Max Brod suddenly saddled with Franz Kafka's papers. You might be one of the several people who somehow managed to get the right to paw through Emily Dickinson's papers. You might be John Maloof, or John Szarkowski, with an immense pile of someone's undeveloped film. In all these cases, and many more besides, it might occur to you to whip this material into shape and publish something under the name of the original author.
It is this case that I am interested in, and in this case the curator's job is severely restricted. If you intend to publish Disckinson's poems under the name "Emily Dickinson" it is essential that you publish what is actually the work - the final result of the process of writing poems - of that person, as best you can. If you make up a bunch of your own poems, or edits hers into something quite different, then you are telling a lie when you publish the work under her name. It is immoral and wrong to do that.
Let me state it clearly, then: If you are the curatorial executor of someone's disorganized mess, with the aim of bringing to the public that someone's creative "work" you have a very precise job, and there is no wiggle room: To locate, within that disorganized mess, the artist, and to reveal that artist to the world through their work.
It may turn out, when you try to do the first part, that you cannot locate the artist. Perhaps there is no artist, perhaps it's just a mess. Perhaps it is beyond your power to locate the artist. This must surely happen a great deal. For every Dickinson there are thousands, or millions, of people who leave piles of paper with writing on them. The first couple of curators of Dickinson, if wikipedia is to be believed, performed their work shoddily.
There are indeed several risks here, and one of them is greatly magnified in the world of photography: whether or not there is anything worthwhile in the mess, it is altogether too easy to construct something out of it that is not the artist.
Don't believe me? I direct your attention to the seemingless endless masses of work being churned out based on "found photographs." If someone can build a coherent book around a collection of a few thousand Polaroids they have collected over the last decade or so, I can assure you that it would be as nothing to produce a dozen completely different but equally coherent books around Vivian Maier's negative stash. Alternatively, go out into a city and shoot 1000 frames without much concern or care, and then go home and see what you find. Suffice it to say, it is manifest and obvious that an insufficiently delicate curator could certainly manufacture something completely false out of a large stash of pictures.
Let us suppose then that you are able to locate the artist in there. This is a gestalt of stuff hard to categorize completely, but it certainly includes choices of subjects, stylistic tics, and bigger ideas. One might find several groupings of stuff, and thus end up trying to tease out this thread or that theme. I dare say it is difficult work, and the diligent worker will inevitably be plagued with worry that they are missing something, or that perhaps they are actually just inventing an artist by accident.
Indeed, what comes out cannot even at its best fail to be something of a hybrid. Even if you were gifted a completed, brilliant, novel and found a publisher for it there would still be the copyedit, and still commas would be removed by, well, by someone, commas that the original author might have firmly marked stet, let it stand.
And then we come around to John Maloof and Vivian Maier.
She left behind something like 140,000 exposures, of which John has, I forget, a lot. Could John have created any number of entirely synthetic "photographers" from this collection? Easily. Identify a handful of stylistic tics, pull all examples of those and put them into heaps. Cull a couple of the bigger heaps for related collections of subjects or conceptual themes. Done. This is literally SOP in the vernacular photography world. They do it every single day of the year, more often on holidays.
Now, this also is almost exactly what you do when you are as I suggest above "locating the artist" within the mess. The difference is that your time with the archive convinces you that the stylistic tics and subjects and concepts are genuinely indicative of the artist.
Consider this picture:
This definitely looks like something. The juxtaposition of the woman's legs in motion with the newspaper headline, it feels weighty. And sort of familiar, but let's set that aside. If we kept stumbling over these downward looking juxtapositions, that might suggest something. If we kept running in to feet next to other things, maybe. Or whatever. Based on what little is available, though, what I suspect is that this is a picture of a newspaper headline and the woman's feet are an accident. Maier liked headlines, she shot a lot of them. It's possible that she shot one at the end of every roll as a sort of date stamp, to be honest.
What makes the picture interesting, what will certainly cause the fans to coo, is the juxtaposition. Listening in, we'd be treated to breathless essays about the genius of the photographer, essays as free of ideas or content as they are of breath. We will never see another picture of this sort, however. Instead we will see a glum midwesterner seated vacantly behind washed out balloons. And then a man inexplicably hidden in a hedge. And then, just a newspaper. And then silhouettes on a green translucent texture that looks like a cheap copy of something Jay Maisel made. And on and on, no two photographs showing the slightest sign of being made by the same hand.
Lest you think it's just me, allow me to quote the Roberta Smith writing in the NY Times:
Maier’s photographs lack the consistent, indelible style of Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand or any number of her contemporaries. Instead they may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.
Yeah. What she said. But you know, Roberta, there might be another explanation...
Whether or not there is an artist to be located in the Vivian Maier archives we may never know. What we do know for certain is that John Maloof has neither located, nor created, an artist. He has simply extracted a set of greatest hits, a marketable mess of unrelated gibberish which feels so familiar that we're willing to mistake it for excellence. He's simply pulled out the good ones, without any effort to pull out a coherent oeuvre (whether real or imagined).
The only reason this works is that so many photographers and viewers of photography remain locked into the notion of photography as the act of finding "the good ones." They, we, our community, tend to think of even a body of work as nothing more than a collection of excellent single pictures. It therefore does not jump out at most appreciators of the work, even the well educated and erudite ones like Mike J, that these collections are incoherent. Many of the individual pictures are excellent, after all, so it escapes notice that every picture might as well have been shot by a completely different photographer.
Maloof has not given us the oeuvre of an artist, even a fake one, he has given us the result of an editor pulling the best single frames from a gigantic pile. The output of an artist, even a poor one, does not look like this.
It is perhaps worth recalling, as a sort of aside, that John Szarkowski seems to have had difficulty locating Winogrand in those last few thousand rolls. I had a look myself, and I couldn't find him either.
Maloof has not merely failed in his duty as the curatorial executor of a woman's mess of stuff, he has not merely put perhaps too much of himself into the artist he's created, he has failed even to produce an artist at all. He's made a lot of money, though.
And therein lies the crux of the whole scam. A fellow accused me of hating on Vivian Maier for "transparently self-serving" reasons, but I assure you that my opinions and the expression of them have failed to serve me in the slightest. Nobody has given me any money, or even a light snack. I have received no invitations to speak, nor fellowships. As nearly as I can discern, no benefit whatever has accrued to me for expressing these notions.
Allan Sekula, however, no doubt received a small honorarium for his hagiographic essay, and there is no doubt in my mind that Meyerowitz also accepted a little money to write a foreword for the new book of color. Indeed, there is hardly a person involved who is not in a position to profit, here. A gallerist might stand up and say "this is a sham" but what would it profit him? Not one sou. If you're not making a profit off this very popular character yet, just wait, perhaps you will next year. There is literally no up side to pissing in to this particular breeze, so it is hardly surprising that we see very little pushback.
And, to be honest, I cannot shake the notion that guys like Sekula are willing to play along because whether or not they're even paying enough attention to notice, they do know that Maier is not important in the ways that matter. She's popular, she's a money-maker, but she's not going to be influential, she will never have any students, her work will spawn no theory, no schools of thought, no new insights real or imagined. All the essays are the same, simply droning on in vague terms about her skill, her observational power, her mysterious past, and so on. Her impact on photography as an art, as a practice, as a business, will be nil. Her impact on the business of making money off dead artists might be slightly larger, but seriously, even there it's pretty much business as usual.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
- Upton Sinclair