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Monday, April 10, 2017

Whence Greatness?

As I see it, the central problem of photography (or one of them, at any rate) is that anyone can take a good picture. Anyone can take a great picture. Even the greatest of photographers shoot a lot of duds. So what is it that differentiates a great photographer from a good one, and a good one from a mediocre one?

Let us be honest. It is possible that there is no difference. The great ones simply shoot more frames.

The commonly held notion is that the better the photographer, the higher the "hit rate" but while possibly true, it's also just silly. Who cares how about hit rate? Can I be Walker Evans if I just shoot a million frames and sort a lot? Why would I be a lesser photographer just because I had to shoot more, if the result is the same? The "hit rate" discussion collapses under its own weight immediately when you examine it. (of course, it matters for professionals who have limited resources to produce a known number of acceptable frames, let us set that aside and think about everyone else)

This, obviously, is related strongly to my previous posts on Vivian Maier. I claim that she likely wasn't a great photographer, but rather a good (and vernacular, i.e. snapshootist) photographer who has been rather sharply edited. Indeed, my wife just leafed through Maloof's book, and her reaction was telling. These are good pictures. They are appealing, they are interesting, they are visually arresting. To my wife, the resemblances to Frank's, Arbus's, Evans' pictures salted throughout are irrelevant, she doesn't catch those references. So what? The pictures are just plain good. Not all 150ish of them, but let's say a good 70-100 of them.

In what follows, I will refer only to Maloof's book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, and to the editor, John Maloof. The other one I have on hand is, as I have noted, quite a different thing.

So what the hell is Molitor on about? People like the pictures, even he admits that they're good, but he refuses to admit that Maier herself is "great." Obviously he's just insane and should go lie down for a while. Why doesn't Andrew want Vivian admitted to the Hall of Fame?

The distinction, I maintain, is in something I vaguely refer to as singleness of vision.

The difference between a monograph from a "great" photographer, and Vivian Maier: Street Photographer is in that singleness of vision. It is this which gives the former weight and longevity, while the latter is destined to be a briefly very popular moment in time. It is, ultimately, the process which shines through in the results.

By focusing on a single (or small set of) theme(s), idea(s), the photographer builds a body of work which is coherent, roughly. The ideas have probably grown and evolved as the pictures were shot, sorted, examined. But the process is a roughly coherent one, and the final result then is ideally rather like a symphony. Ideas are developed, inverted, recapitulated. New ideas arrive harmonically. Perhaps one or more crescendos appear. Rachmaninov felt that every piece of music was balanced on a single moment, the peak moment, and everything else in the piece must support that.

To compare with those two ur-monographs, The Americans and American Photographs, I think we can reasonably say that the two classics are both documentary in nature, showing us at least something of what America Was, but also are coherent commentary. These books represent a point of view, an opinion, of America. They show, and they judge. They are, in a way, criticism as well as documentation.

Maloof's book of Maier's is more like a medley from the Boston Pops. Wonderfully arranged popular pieces, blended appealingly into a single performance. Well, Maloof isn't quite that talented, but you get the idea. The number of people that collect recordings of Medleys From The Boston Pops is quite a bit smaller than the number that collect recordings of Beethoven's 6th symphony, I dare say. The Pops Medley is wonderfully accessible, people like it. Beethoven's symphonies, while in vogue this century, are not nearly as accessible, enjoying them is, if we are honest with ourselves, occasionally a bit of a chore.

Maloof's book has to be like this, since there is no (I maintain) underlying opinion buried, encoded, in the pictures. Maier had no critical intent in these pictures, no intent to uplift, or to cast down, or to enlarge, or to thunder angrily, or to praise, or to bury. She was simply taking pictures. Therefore, any attempt to make a monograph that does any of those things is necessarily false, and therefore we can be grateful that Maloof did not.

Still, Beethoven lasts. In part because the brilliant minds of the academy assure us that Beethoven is great, important, but also one hopes because even a rubes like us can tell that there's something there. We're willing, from time to time, to do that chore and sit through the dull bits until we get to that bit where's everyone's yelling FREUD! over and over again for some reason, because we like that bit a lot.

It's a bit like the difference between kitsch and Art, but with less daylight between the two ends. The Medleys are still marvelously crafted, well played, good music. We need feel no shame in liking them, they're "accessible" rather than "low-brow" and so it is with Maier's work, and so it is with a great number of other monographs and exhibitions, I dare say.

But I still don't much like John Maloof.


  1. Intention... "Greatness"... Vision v. accident... Taste... These are huge, contentious, and unresolvable questions, though I agree that "The Maier Case" does raise them all. But then so do "The Americans" and "American Photographs". You're really talking about "canon formation" here. Consider cases of late-arrivers like William Blake, Vermeer, or -- prime exhibit here -- a "discovery" like Atget.

    Art is a social phenomenon, and has no objective criteria against which it can be measured. Today's "tingle factor" will fade, and even Shakespeare and Beethoven will come to seem irredeemably antique one day. Kitsch *is* art (Geoff Koons?), and vice versa (Chagall?) should enough of the right people decide so.

    But this is why it's a fun game to play!


    1. My favorite retort here usually goes something like this:

      Just because Art is a social construct doesn't mean it's not real! Money is a social construct too, after all, and not only is it usefully close to real, it comes in various denominations!

    2. Well, of course art is real. Probably more real than money. But these are variables, not constants. Try spending your old stash of French Francs in Paris, or buying a house at its 1995 value.

      Race and racism are social constructs, for example, no? Both very real as experienced now, but not (hopefully) eternally with us and in any way "essential" to human experience. One day race hate will be as baffling as burning heretics. Although, sadly, I'm sure we'll find novel ways to hate each other in the future.


  2. A BIG part of the problem, I think, is that Maier is dead, never did anything with the images and left no notes to tell us what she was about. She is not just a mystery (we can tease out some details of her life) but photographically and enigma. We may not all like what Maloof has produced, but in the absence of any datum from Maier as to what she was about when she took the images, we are left with someone else's interpretation. That will always be open to argument and criticism.