Saturday, April 8, 2017

Vivian Maier

I have in my home at the moment two of the books of Maier's photographs, borrowed from my local library. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer from John Maloof's collection of 100,000+ negatives of Maier's work, and Out of the Shadows from Jeffrey Goldstein's somewhat smaller collection (20,000 to 40,000, I have seen several different numbers). From these two books I am attempting to cut through some of the unavoidable editorial oversight to try to make some sense of the underlying archives, to make some sense of what Maier might actually have been up to.

There has been a great deal of overt myth-making surrounding this body of work, and given the degree of hype we've seen over the last decade, we can be absolutely certain that there is somewhat less there than the hype makes out. That is simple arithmetic -- the hype machine will, of course, take the most optimistic view of whatever it is hyping, and will slip over from time to time into pure untruth. Reality is therefore certain to be at least slightly less remarkable, and is likely to be quite a bit less remarkable.

About three years ago, I made some remarks roughly about Maier and some related things, which you can review here if you like. I had not at that time looked at any of the books, but had spent some time poking through Maier's work online. This current essay is more or less an update of those remarks, and may reflect some changes in thinking. I think I may have been more generous in the past.

What do we actually have here, and can we identify anything of it through the fog of hype? I think I can, and I intend to try.

First let us examine the books themselves a little. Maloof's book is of course all street photography, he has (we will find out in a little while) selected only things that qualify as street photography from his archive, and has sequenced them in what appears to be roughly chronological order, with some effort to give us appealing or witty pairings on verso and recto pages. There are a couple handfuls of photographs that remind me of specific photographs by other noted photographers:

Diane Arbus shot a couple things that look a lot like this.

This looks at least a little bit like some of Paul Strand's photos.

This one is quite reminiscent of several of Stieglitz' pictures.

This one, interestingly, looks like a Cartier-Bresson, or would if you lopped about 20 percent off the left side. Unlike the others, it does not remind me of a specific picture, it rather feels "in the style of."

There is a bunch of what we now call "street portraiture" which superfically resembles more of Diane Arbus's work, but upon closer inspection we see that it is rather more ordinary. The subject is either unaware of the camera, or is fully aware and posing. This is the sort of drivel that is, honestly, easy to bang out all day long. Find an interesting character, photograph the interesting character, repeat. You can take endless workshops on how to do it. Still, it has documentary interest, I think, spanning decades as it does.

Then there is the filler. The worst of it is this thing:

Possibly with some context it would be interesting, but as it is it is a completely uninteresting photograph of a random crowd. There's also this one:

Which is interesting on two fronts. First, a very very similar photograph appears in the other book. Second, it is exactly the sort of photograph a tyro thinks is Just Terrific.

So, Maloof (the editor of this book) has selected something like 150 pictures, some percentage (10, 20) of which specifically remind me of specific other photographs by other photographers, another 30 percent is perfectly decent street portraiture of the easy sort, and then there's a mishmash of different subjects, exactly one picture of which seems to be "in the style of" another specific photographer (the H C-B-alike noted above) and a few bits of absolute filler which I find it hard to imagine even Maloof was pleased with.

Maloof makes no effort at scholarship. There is no attempt to date any of the pictures, or even to locate them. There's a little hagiographic forward, a few lines of additional text, all basically about how mysterious Maier was and how wonderful her photographs were.

Let us recall that this is a woman who left behind several storage lockers full of stuff, and hold on to that thought.

The second book, Out of the Shadows is pulled from Goldstein's collection. It includes a much broader range of work, and quite a lot more scholarship. Photographs are all approximately dated and located for us, and there is a lot more text detailing Maier's history, snippets of conversation with people who knew her, and so on. It turns out she wasn't actually all that mysterious, she just didn't talk about herself a whole lot. While the authors of Out of the Shadows cling to Maloof's Mystery Woman trope, they simultaneously make it clear that there was very little mystery. Remember, now, about those storage lockers. If you can't figure out a few things about someone from several tons of personal crap, you're not much of a historian. Maier is quite a bit less of a cipher than many of us.

Anyways, onwards to these pictures. There's a lot less notable in here. The Frank-alikes and the Arbus-alikes are all gone, what we have are well made snaps of various trips and locations. Lots more street portraiture as described above, a lot of found still lifes, shadow play, textures. There's a whole section of torn paper scraps on the ground, on the street, in the trash. Newspaper headlines appear a lot. And so on. This books has several hundred photos in it, quite a few more than the Street Photographer, and far more widely spread in genre.

This book also contains a lot of breathless hagiography, but at least it also contains a few facts, a fair bit of research, and broader view of the photographer's work.

The reproductions are somewhat lower contrast, which to me suggests a less hipster and more honest approach.

In short, Out of the Shadows is a vastly more serious book than Street Photographer and is vastly more interesting. Combining the two provides, I think, some real insight.

So what does this all mean?

Let's pick on Robert Frank a bit. He went out and shot a ton of film to make The Americans, all on a specific theme. He was looking for something, some essentially American thing. Then he went through his 35,000 negatives or whatever it was, and picked out a small set of them, printed them, and finally had the lot put into a book with a foreword by Jack Kerouac (rejecting, I think, Walker Evans in favor of Kerouac). So this is a complete project. This is a man on a mission. Frank had a singular vision.

The conceit with Vivian Maier, tucked away and never explicitly stated, is that her street photography is something of the same. We imagine that, in some sense, she had some master plan which was never executed, which the helpful pirates of her collected negatives are now completing on her behalf. Maloof scents a hint of Frank's work in a few of Maier's pictures, a sniff of Arbus, and pulls together a "might have been" book of street photography. He wraps it in all the tropes of an artist monograph, the book is very much in the style of The Americans, which resulted from a coherent and vigorously pursued plan. There's no evidence whatsoever that Maier even had any such plan, let alone would have pursued it.

Indeed, all the evidence we have points the other way, that Maier in fact did not have a plan. She was, like so many other people, simply taking pictures of things that caught her interest. This evidence comes in two basic dollops. The first is that she was remarkably catholic in taste, she shot everything. People, buildings, trash, dead animals. Children, the poor, the rich. Cars. Street. Shadows. Herself (a lot), and so on. The second is that she does not seem to have even begun on any sort of plan, there's no mention I have discovered of any effort to organize, to sort, to cull. The people interviewed seem to universally agree that she shot a lot of pictures, but didn't talk about them or show them around much.

It would be easy to suggest that the camera was for Maier a shield and a portal through which she related to the world, that the negatives themselves were ultimately not the point. That is certainly possible. It's also irrelevant.

All this begs the question of what it is that makes the photographer. What makes a photographer great, or influential? Which parts of the process are inherent, and which can be dispensed with, without losing that essence of greatness? I maintain that it is, essentially, the singular vision.

The Maier project, to be blunt, more closely resembles the process of pulling together a book of found, vernacular, photographs than it does the process of pulling together a traditional monograph. Her books are being pitched, essentially, as the latter, and they are, in reality, the former.

This is not to say that Maier was awful, certainly not. I have seen something like 500 pictures of the 140,000 or so she's left behind. That's one in 1:280 or thereabouts. There's no doubt that Maier had at least a little bit of an eye for how to fill a frame appealingly (I quite like the "found still life" material she made, she had quite a gift there, in my opinion). She had some ability to photograph people on the street in an appealing way. She seems to have, from time to time, made a photograph that looked a bit like someone else's better known photograph.

She also, it is clear, shot plenty of duds. The editors of these two books were unable to fill them completely with anything resembling "keepers". The editors of Out of the Shadows duck around it by being completists, they're showing us various stages of development, they're showing breadth, so of course there are some duds.

What she is lacking is any singular vision. Despite the claims by the hagiographers, there is simply not a unifiying theme here. There is no signature Maier style. All of it looks vaguely like everything else. This one looks like an Arbus, that one like a Strand, most of them are indistinguishable from the vast swathes of Street Portraits we are inundated with, the shadow play looks like shadow play. The rather lovely found still lifes look a lot like late 19th century still lifes. She's simply shooting everything, anything, that catches her eye as interesting.

What we are looking at here, almost certainly, is a modestly talented vernacular photographer. She has no particular vision, because she doesn't need one, there's no evidence that she was remotely interested in any such thing. To suppose that she was basically a Robert Frank is not merely absurd, it is arguably insulting and disrespectful. Why the hell can't we let this woman be what so she obviously was, a woman with a camera who took pleasure in photographing things, lots of things?

John Maloof, whether deliberately or no, has run a remarkable scam on the photographic world. He managed to recruit a few notable names to his cause, and trotted out a handful of vaguely familiar looking pictures, and on the strength of that managed to tip the whole community over into gasps of joy and pleasure. Everyone loves a Cinderella story, especially is Cinderella is helpfully dead and out of the way, after all. Maloof managed to confuse people in a very very specific way. By showing us a photo that looks like that one Arbus photo, or that one Frank picture, or those two Evans photos, he has buffaloed everyone into thinking that the Maier is similar enough to Arbus/Frank/Evans to be interesting.

There is a huge gap between "made a picture that looks a lot like that one by Ansel Adams" and "shoots like Ansel Adams" and that difference is extremely important. Anyone can make one picture that looks a lot like another picture, and if you shoot 140,000 frames, you're practically certain to get some hits.

My theory here is that Maloof and his co-conspirators pulled out these vaguely familiar photographs, and then dressed them up with a bunch of words about Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans. The photographs supported the text, by golly, they do look like that. This created a self-reinforcing spiral in which more credible names were persuaded and made more statements about Kertész and so on. After a little while it becomes received wisdom that Maier is the reincarnation of pretty much anyone you want her to be, except that she also has her own inimitable style, her own instantly recognizable je ne sais quois. The coincidences of appearance of a handful of pictures, together with an obvious visual competence on Maier's part, together with an entirely imaginary Mystery Woman About Whom Almost Nothing Is Known, and a healthy dose of luck, birthed a genius, of a sort.

In particular, this is (in my opinion, as if that needed to be repeated) another example of how our mental model of what we see can be colored and indeed managed. Maloof and his cohorts have managed us, collectively, so when we see Maier's pictures we know already that they are wonderful, they carry echoes of not one of the greats, but all of the greats. And so, of course, we tend to see that. Unless we are very careful, unless we check and re-check, to be sure of what it is we think we see.

I do not pretend to know if the scam was purely deliberate, purely unconscious, or somewhere in between. It is obvious that Maloof very much wants to have discovered an unsung great (who on earth would NOT want to, after all?) and that in the service of that he has done a great deal of the work. Maloof has a singular vision, but unfortunately it is not a visual one. Despite his best efforts, even the smaller book of pictures he's pulled together lacks any coherent photographic vision. Despite his best efforts, it shows the seams of the ex post facto idea of Maier he has assembled out of component parts. This is, in part, because Maloof simply isn't very sophisticated, and partly because there probably isn't that much material (i.e. excellent street photographs) to work with.

That said, these are still quite fun books to look at. They are packed full of history and occasional flashes of genuine wit. There are lots of interesting looking people, capably shot, and who doesn't like that? These books are markedly better than those horrible (and yet appealing) Local History books but enjoy much of the charm of them.

That said, I still don't much like John Maloof.


  1. Amolitor, you have found your métier in the recent extended reviews of books and exhibitions of photography. It is a pleasure to read about and follow your thought process as you try to suss out the meaning and significance of the bodies of photographic work you have observed.

  2. There are two things that I find a bit odd about Vivian Maier:

    * Why did she photograph all these things? Nowadays, much of "street photography" is actually a cliche. But in her day, in the 50s and 60s, I believe it must still have been quite contemporary. If this movement was an influence to her, then how did she get access to the work of the masters (supposedly she was a nanny, or a housemaid)? Did she attend exhibitions, buy monographs? If so, this certainly signals a deeper involvement with photography as an art than a typical "happy snapper" has.

    * A further case in point is her gear: I've seen a "selfie" of her taken with a Rolleiflex. In her day, this was a pretty advanced camera for an amateur (in today's terms, think of Joe the plumber toting a Nikon D5 with 24-70 f/2.8). Given that she worked as a nanny, this must have been a significant expense. Add to this the cost of all the film she shot! Again, this hints at a more-than-casual relation to photography.

    To me, this is all quite mysterious. And, we all take lots of duds, don't we? (At least I did this morning).

    Best, Thomas

  3. Yes, I agree with Thomas (especially about the duds this morning...). You've got to bear in mind when she was working: "The Americans" wasn't published in the USA until 1959, and most reviewers hated it, and Arbus didn't really exhibit until 1967, with the Aperture monograph following in 1972. Getting to see a good sample of contemporary photography was a serious problem until the 1980s, if not later.

    The point of Maier *is* the mystery, isn't it? A fair proportion of her output is excellent work by our retrospective standards, formed by those exceptional photographers you mention, not those of amateur photography in the 1950s and 60s (which was dire, in the main). How this could have happened, given her circumstances, is intriguing.

    I agree there's hype, and an attempt to cash in on the mystery and the thrill of saving it all from so nearly going the bin. But there's a lot of it about: for example, what I can't understand is the canonisation of Fred Herzog... (though check out p. 203 of "Modern Color" -- is that your Bellingham?).


  4. Maier DID have a little money, there was an inheritance ("$60,000 in today's dollars") in the late 50s, which she seems to have spent on travel and cameras. My guess is that she eked this money out for several decades. Also, of course, she *was* employed much of the time, and was incredibly cheap. So, I think the occasional Rollei and film was not an unreasonable expense for her.

    As for the duds, well, that's kind of a central question of photography, innit? Literally anyone can take a good picture now and then. And even the best shoot a lot of duds. So what, if anything, is the difference between say, Me, and Robert Frank? I think there *is* a difference, but quantifying it is hard.

    Lastly, the basic thrust of my thesis (probably lost in the flood of words, sorry) is that resemblances to "influences" (which, as noted, mostly occurred LATER) are in my opinion, coincidences pulled out by Maloof in order to create the impression of Maier as a prodigy.

    The other book, to my eye, makes this pretty clear. It shows us some motifs that are much more distinctly Maier and still quite good. I don't know if they're good enough to elevate her to sainthood, in part because I don't know what that even ought to mean. But they're good.

  5. I feel the same way about the Miroslav Tichy collection.