Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Curator of The Estate

I was going to update this with a tl;dr executive summary, but then I said to myself "why would I do that?" and so I am not.

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


  1. No doubt, you would probably not be satisfied with anyone's particular edit. Any given person would come up with a different edit of her pictures, and many of those edits would no doubt contain many of the same photos. I'm not at all sure how you employ your true "inner artist" edit.

    There's a couple of things you fail to mention which could, at least in part, well answer some of the problems concerning VM's substantive body of work. First, she was beholden to her working career- she did not have the luxury of plotting out specific photo projects as did other, more well monied artists. She shot when she could, where she could, saving every penny to allow her some small measure of personal freedom. No doubt some of those pictures we are now familiar with were done with someone else's children in tow.

    She also shot practically blind, not having the most basic, common and necessary form of developmental feedback- seeing what your own work actually looks like in print, year after year, after year... That is an artistic disadvantage of such monumental proportion, I just don't see how one overcomes it- And yet, she did! Could that possibly, just possibly, be a contributing factor to your "lack of artistic cohesiveness."

    Finally, I don't understand your personal attacks on John Maloof. I've been involved to some degree with photography most of my life (he had zero experience)- and I don't think I could have done anywhere near as good a job as he did. Yeah, I certainly hope he made enough money out of it to devote as much time and care to the process as necessary.

    Obviously, you neither appreciate her work as an artist, nor his work as a curator of it. I really don't give a Flying F about how "influential" she is in the art world. If anything she is a worthy antidote to the art world, showing it up for what it is, and what it ain't. And a much welcomed source of inspiration to those who dare to dream and achieve without the means, connections, the kudos of those that count...

    1. First of all, as a stay at home dad I look after kids in much the same way Maier did, except for the part where I travel around the world on an inheritance. I can manage to shoot in projects, so your second paragraph is unconvincing to me.

      But mainly, this piece is almost completely separate from Maier and her work. We do not know what her work looks like.

      Why am I hard on Maloof? Because he is, perhaps unconsciously, guilty of malfeasance. This is the thrust of the essay above these comments, so I shall not repeat the argument here.

    2. So, she chose not to shoot in "projects," but then, we don't really know since "we do not know what her work looks like."

      No, you needn't repeat yourself, but perhaps describing how you would have avoided all of Maloof's glaring mistakes (both conscious and otherwise) would be a revelation to all...

    3. If you start with the paragraph that begins "She left behind something like 140,000 exposures..." and read both that one and the next one, you will find a precise description of what I would have done, and what I feel firmly is the correct procedure.

    4. "what I feel firmly is the correct procedure"

      Based on what?

    5. No, no you don't- you describe what Maloof did (in your own humble interpretation), exactly what is SOP in the field (as you yourself admit) and then present a two sentence philosophical alternative, before lapsing into criticism of a particular photo, and the method of editing within this particular book as a whole. There is no "precise description," no particular guidelines as to how you would define and flesh out her artistry, other than to show more works that are alike. Color was not particularly her forte, this book merely exhibited the fact that she was literate in the medium. And I don't see how anyone could deny a level of artistic consistency in the style and quality of her B&W work.

    6. David: Based on a great deal of reading and thinking. Photography has had, since inception, a basic problem with "what, exactly, is the difference between simply taking a large random collection of pictures, and then picking the good ones, and actually working as an artist, a creative, in the field of photography"

      What you are looking at here is a synthesis of a lot of stuff and I regret that I am unable to provide specific citations. I could probably troll through my own archives and expand on it a bit, though.

      If you're interested in the things I have read I recall as impacting me particularly hard, I would be happy to take some time, dig them up, and send them along. Feel free to drop me an email if you think you might find some value in that.

    7. Stan: you do have to assemble it a bit yourself, from the two paragraphs I cited. You have to work out what the antecedent of 'this', the third word of the second paragraph is, but I think that's pretty obvious.

      The two paragraphs I cited are notably silent on what John Maloof actually did, so I am unsure where you're getting that from, and the criticism of the particular photo begins after the two paragraphs I cited, so, again, not clear what you're on about.

      I don't see any particular way I can make it clearer than I already have.

    8. Also I will note that the field of making stuff out of vernacular photography is exactly what John Maloof is claiming NOT to have done, so in a third way I cannot make out what you're on about. Perhaps you're not particularly familiar with the ways people are using found and vernacular photos these days? In any case, the whole point of these endeavors is that the curator is creating something new, which is not present in the photographs as found.

  2. I'm not going to get into the deep end of this discussion, because frankly I'm neither qualified nor to be honest all that bothered, but one thing nags at me - unless I misread something, it seems we're being told that VM never had her colour negs printed (Kenneth Tanaka comment at MJ's Fuji Fanboi Daily, er, sorry, The Online Photographer.

    That being the case - but then again, how the hell do we know ? - then as far as I can see it would have only by the most unlikely pure chance that she developed ANY kind of coherent colour style, as she would have had no idea whatsoever what her photos looked like.

    Then again why would any photographer go to the expense of buying colour negative, have it developed, and not have any prints ?

    None of this makes sense to me.

    1. I believe she shot chromes, and I suppose she may have owned a slide projector at this time or that. She seems to have been the sort who would.

      Honestly, I see no convincing evidence that she did -- or did not -- develop any particular sense of anything. What we actually have in hand is consistent with virtually any story you want to put together.

  3. So commerce and art collide yet again ... what else is new?

    Maloof is not an academic, but a salesman, so it's no surprise that he is playing to his strengths here.

    So far as I can tell, though, his commercialization of Maier's artistic estate has been done generally tastefully -- so far, anyway! -- and so long as he uses some of the money he's made to preserve her estate for posterity, so history can ultimately sort out her standing (or lack thereof, as the case may be), really, where's the harm?

    In fact, I think if Maier's estate had somehow fallen into my hands instead of his, I would be following much the same path that he has: i.e., generate some interest in her and her photography by undertaking various promotional efforts (to his credit, I believe he's done this step remarkably well); capitalize on those efforts to make some quick money early on to fund the archival preservation of the materials, as well as to resolve the many, messy legal issues that inevitably surfaced and consolidate all the legal rights to her photos; develop a long-term strategy to maximize the commercial value to the collection (which is when I expect he will finally start to see a significant return personally; to date, I'll bet he's paid out a significant portion of what money he has made to lawyers and her heirs sorting out the many legal issues) and then -- and only then -- take steps to address the scholarly aspects surround her and her photos.

    Remember, it was just over a decade ago that he acquired her negatives, etc. and not even a decade since the public began to take notice of her work.

    As these things go, I'd say he's actually accomplished quite a lot in a fairly short period of time, and I would be slow to criticize him too severely for that which he hasn't.

    I think it's fair to give him some time and for now, also the benefit of doubt. There's plenty of time later to break out the pitchforks and torches if he proves inadequate to the job and screws up things badly...

    1. Maybe! The book of selfies looked like it was edging toward "well, enough of that, what was Maier *actually* up to?" but the new color book looks like we've reverted right back to "hey, that one looks like a Maisel, in it goes!" Maybe Maloof just needs to replenish the coffers after the last round of legal challenges.

      The selfies and the photos of paper (newspapers and scrap papers) are the only things I've seen that give me a sense of 'ooo, maybe...' when I see them. But they're not terribly marketable, you're not going to make a bundle off someone whose actual talent was photographing bits of trash, eh?

      At the end of the day, I suspect that there's really not much interesting about Vivian Maier as a photographer except that she was infernally persistent. There's quite a bit interesting about what makes a prominent character in the world of photography, however.

    2. Also, just because something is common, natural, and expected does not mean that we ought not disparage it.

      Dickinson's first editors were rather heavy handed as well, favoring commercialization over authenticity, although perhaps not quite as outrageously as Maloof. They have been duly disparaged for their editorial efforts, and lauded for their marketing work.

      History does in the end work itself out sometimes, but perhaps not if we insist on suppressing problems.

  4. Most well-known and respected photographers, at least since the 35mm era, have had a few "keepers" amongst a great many more negatives or images on their proof sheets. Perhaps one difference between them and Maier is simply that those well-known photographers made the choice of what to keep and what to jettison or forget while they were alive, and Maier never had that opportunity. Is it possible that some of the consistent style we appreciate in the work of the known artists was the result of their conscious editing, while the task of editing Maier's work has fallen to others?

    1. I think that is roughly my thesis!

      Well. We do know what Maier would have done, given the chance, which is: nothing. She had the chance, plenty of chances, and elected to do other things with her time. It is not a big stretch to speculate that she simply was not terribly interested in all the stuff that comes after shooting. Which is very very normal, lots of people with cameras find their interest dropping off fairly quickly after the button is pressed.

      Contrary to what Stan says above, she had lots of prints. She did print, quite a bit, although she fell behind in the end. Shooting was clearly the thing she was interested in, and looking at the results a somewhat distant second place, and nothing whatever beyond that. If she stuck them in albums, I do not know. They have been removed from albums and carefully preserved, by now.

      This doesn't mean that there isn't genius in there someplace, or huge important collections. My point is that Maloof hasn't found them, and is passing off AS them something that ISN'T.

      It's not the idea of editing this archive that's a problem, it's the way this one guy is doing it.

      I'd like to think that history is going to sort it out, but I suspect strongly that in another decade Maloof will drop it as the money stream dries up, and the archive will effectively vanish.

      I ran across an article in which Maloof was donating some Maier stuff to a University, but then it turned out to be a bunch of prints. So far he's holding the negatives pretty tightly, and history is only going to get a shot at sorting it out if the negatives become available. Which will be when Maloof dies, I suspect. They'll probably wind up in a storage locker, sold for a few bucks, and this time they'll probably end up in a landfill.

    2. Most the prints I've seen made during her lifetime are of the small, drug store variety. I'd hesitate to consider them of work print quality. And so much of her work she did not get to see in any form whatsoever. It's not like she had access to her own darkroom all along and only ran short at the end a la Winogrand.

    3. The ongoing notion that Maier was somehow prevented by forces outside of her control from... somehow actualizing herself? is absurd.

      She was not some Kahlahari Desert native, 1000 miles from the nearest photo lab. Nor was she a poverty stricken ghetto dweller for most of her life. She was not living in the dark ages. She was a nanny to the affluent, in a bustling and modern city, in the middle portion of the 20th century. Being a nanny, while time consuming was not crushing. She had a darkroom of her own at times and access to labs as good as any in the world. For a time she had an inheritance sufficient to send her on a trip around the world.

      The idea that she was somehow deprived of the opportunity to whatever-it-is is silly. For the most part, she chose not to. Small prints were ample for whatever needs she felt, which we know, because that's what she had made. She could have had 8x10s or 16x20s made, and as far as I know elected not to.

    4. Had you simply expounded on how we will never have an original edit of Maier's work by the artist herself- who on earth could argue with you? But you go far beyond that, first, there is your genuine animus concerning Maloof; I don't know how you wouldn't find fault with anyone's posthumous edit. And then, you also seem to hold an overall resentment concerning the acclaim that Maier has rightfully garnered for her overall photographic achievement.

      Had I read only what you wrote of her, I would have come away thinking that she had led a rather comfortable life of leisure and world travel resulting from a rather lavish inheritance, and that she was churning out and squirreling away prints galore as she squandered away her remaining money. Unfortunately, the evidence does not support that. Yes, she cleverly appropriated whatever funds she had to undertake her priorities at the time, and she chose travel and a modest but quality kit. Same as I did, same as many of us do- so it is of no surprise that she then had to sacrifice elsewhere. And sacrifice she so obviously did- since so much of her work went undeveloped. She died penniless, and despite her period of travel, there is no evidence that she lived lavishly- ever; if anything, she lived a rather frugal, spartan existence throughout her life (and without the close friends, family or professional support group that many of us have).

      The British film very effectively demonstrated just how effectively (and creatively) she made use of a twelve shot roll of 120 film. No one is claiming she had no contact with the outside world, she was obviously an avid observer and learner. But when you have someone who died destitute, scrounging to pay for many of life's basic necessities (let alone film processing)- you're not gonna make the most convincing argument that she did not make larger, exhibition quality prints simply because she didn't want to...

    5. Amolitor,the photographic work of most of us will end up in a landfill, or its digital equivalent. I understand and identify with the trait you see in Maier, namely, finding the fun in the capture (and today, the initial postprocessing). You have written about making photobooks. Their destiny is also the landfill. But isn't it fun and creative to do the work? Nothing will remain, but we're engaged in the moment.

    6. Gary: Absolutely! My estimate, unconfirmable, is that Maier was an interested and devoted amateur photographer with a perfectly decent sense of how to fill the frame and a magpie interest in everything. She clearly found value in the doing of her photography, and more power to her. I am glad she did it!

      It's the efforts to turn her into an Important Artist that strike me as both silly and greedy.

    7. Stan: You appear to be doing the Internet thing of reading whatever I write in the stupidest conceivable way, and then a little more, and then pretending I said that.

      I will provide you with a shorter path to what you're looking for:

      Find and click the Portfolio link on this page. Look at my pictures, confirm the opinion you have already formed that "his photos are shit", make the irrational but short and inevitable leap to "he is an idiot" and then return to your life in the sure and certain knowledge that anything the bad man says is wrong.

    8. Actually, my path was shorter still-
      I was just going to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

    9. Well, a happy thanksgiving to you as well!

  5. Give a competant photographer a camera and tell them to do street photography for a year or two and sure as shit their photographs will be pretty interesting in 50+ years time.

  6. I think you pretty well nailed that my friend, I think like you he's a man that was firstly obsessed with the dollar and as a consequence thought little of what he should perhaps have done. So its a big thumbs up from me, I always enjoy your posts, they challenge and explore and are always entertaining.