Thursday, November 15, 2018

Vivian Maier, Again

Confidential to David S.: You're welcome!

Mike over on ToP mentions Yet Another book by the (not even slightly) mysterious nanny, this one of color photographs. I have not seen the book, but if you flip through the color section of John Maloof's web site we find more of what we ought to thoroughly expect at this point.

All the pictures look vaguely like other pictures we've seen. This one looks a bit like an Elliot Erwitt, that one looks a bit like an Alec Soth, this one looks like some random contemporary MFA candidate's Serious Work (or like she pressed the shutter button by accident, I could go either way). Oh look, here's one where you photograph some random scene, but hold up some optical thing in the middle of it, to create a circle of upside-down and magnified (or whatever) scenery. Some of it looks like black and white photography that happens to be shot in color, a little bit of it actually looks like color photography, in the sense that color is actually playing a role in the picture.

You could certainly argue with whether I have Erwitt or Soth pegged properly, but the point is that we've seen all these pictures before, and not in the same place. This is an incoherent pastiche of vaguely familiar pictures, not the body of work of an artist, of a serious photographer.

That is to say, it is exactly like all the Vivian Maier books.

What is plain and obvious to anyone who hasn't been sucked in by the myth is that there is no Vivian Maier style here. Since she appears to be "copying" artists who post-date her, often by many decades, we are (again) drawn to the inescapable conclusion that this is entirely a work of curation. Again, we are left wondering what her pictures actually look like, when not clumsily sorted into these pseudo-derivative messes designed purely to sell books.

Is there, in fact a real Vivian Maier that could be discovered if we were not being spoon-fed these cheap copies of other photos? Or is it really just a mass of random snaps, large enough to pull a handful of highly marketable monographs out of, marketable if you wrap them up in a good enough story?

As an aside, I see that the amazon description of the book continues to pound the "mysterious nanny" story when in fact we know more about Vivian Maier than we do about Napoleon, and nobody refers to him as an enigmatic, mysterious, Emperor.


  1. This film goes a long way to explaining how the 'discovery' of Vivian Maier, became a phenomenon that is making a few people very rich, undeservedly so, you might say, but it is what it is, and provides a rich body of work for the rest of us to contemplate and argue over:

    Has her oeuvre been properly curated? I guess you would need access to all of it to have an informed opinion. Suffice to say, these things take time, as in decades, and it's been only a few years.

    Are the promoters/dealers/collectors/investors' motives suspect? Sure. Do they really give a flying fuck about photography, except as a means to make a fast buck? I'm guessing with few exceptions, not.

    Does this take anything away from her posthumously-celebrated achievement. I really don't think so. I think she was an awesome photographer, and probably deserves all the accolades, regardless of the promotional circus. YMMV.

    1. My position, perhaps unique in the world, is not that Maier was excellent or terrible, but that we do not know and that at present Maloof is preventing us from finding out.

    2. "No one has taken more bad pictures than me." -- Martin Parr.

      No, your position is not unique, in fact it is stated by Joel Sternfeld in the film on youtube (url posted above), around the 17:05 mark.