Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Where is Vivian Maier now?

I've written a fair bit about Vivian Maier over the years.

  The Curator of the Estate
  Vivian Maier Again
  Whence Greatness
  Vivian Maier

and probably a few more pieces.

The general thrust here is that Vivian Maier The Important Photographer is a construct.

The public interest seems to be dropping off, thankfully. The most recent (?) book, of color photographs, was not a phenomenon, although I suppose its sales are respectable. The corresponding spike in google search is much much smaller than for previous books, and the number of reviews on amazon is much smaller. It's picked up a few remarks, but not the 100s that previous books did. The VM Phenomenon as a public enterprise seems to have largely run its course.

While I find Maier's work largely uninteresting, and Maloof's (her posthumous editor) behavior to be outright objectionable, I find the phenomenon itself to be very interesting. The construction of a Photographic Artist out of, as it were, thin air, is a very informative exercise worth examining.

The basis, of course, is some pretty OK photographs. You have to have something to sell, and Maier's competent eye combined with Maloof's apparently indefatigable searching provided that. There's something like 100 really good pictures in play here. There's no coherent artistic vision, nor a signature style, but that turns out not to matter. That is, to my mind, a bit of a shocker, but here we are.

Next up, there's a good story. The facts, when you examine them, are not particularly interesting, but they're well presented. Maier is Mysterious and Tragic despite being, in truth, neither of those things — she is thoroughly known, and lived a perfectly ordinary life, if a trifle on the taciturn and reclusive side. This is not unusual, pick any artist. You will find, more often than not, a fairly ordinary life buried in a narrative shaped to make it feel extraordinary.

Most people live pretty ordinary lives, after all, why should artists be different? The point is that the story is shaped to appear interesting, because this is an essential part of the construction.

A truly critical step is the recruitment of gatekeepers. Allan Sekula, for unknown reasons, jumped in more or less first and granted Maloof a ticket to the big show by declaring Maier's work to be special. Sekula certainly should have known better. After that, it simply snowballed. Big Names follow trends as much as Little Names, maybe moreso, and so the entire community followed Sekula's lead and blathered about the ineffable qualities that imbue the work and make it special. As Berger might have said: "mystification."

At this point Maloof was able to take his 100-odd good pictures, and another 100 or so decent filler pictures, and go on a great world tour. He sold a lot of books, got a lot of gallery time, and so on. I'm sure the books are still selling tolerably well, considering, and he's still getting gallery shows albeit in Calgary rather than New York. It looks as if he's trying to turn her perfectly ordinary travel snaps in to something now, but given the relatively dull response to the color photography, this may wind up nowhere.

I have to wonder if some of the museums that signed up a couple years ago to show Maier now are regretting that choice.

There's still some juice left in the orange, and I dare say that if Maloof has managed his money responsibly he won't have to work very hard for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless what we have here is a case study in the construction of something, a case study of particular note because the interior is largely empty. We can see how the house is built, because there's nothing inside to clutter up our view.

The work itself doesn't matter much. There needs to be something to talk around, but it doesn't have to be much. If the work has been designated as Important, the critical community will turn backflips to find Importance in it. Then you need a good story, which again is more in the shaping than in the facts. Finally you need to recruit gatekeepers. These latter are, obviously, the key to the whole business. The point is that the gatekeepers aren't going to bite if you haven't got some adequate work and a good story. I dare say that to some extent you can trade off depth of work and interesting story? If the work is a bit thin, the story has to be pretty well-told, and vice versa.

It will be interesting to see if, over the next few years, interest remains in Maier inside the photographic community. Outside it, the show is over, but that is to be expected for any artist, whether real or constructed. The test is whether Maier continues to occupy a special place in the pantheon, or whether everyone will quietly let it go and, in the end, pretend that they were never much interested.


  1. The case of Vivian Maier is especially vexing for you?

    There's a twitter feeding frenzy in progress among the usual suspects, eager to tear a strip off one Pieter Hugo, whose photographs in a recent showing we are reliably told scream "Mexico is one giant freak show."

    PH is a white South African, guilty of serial career missteps and transgressions that have not (so far) served to blacken his reputation. So to speak.

    Here's the thing, he is a commercial success, and the web site that kicked this all off Collector Daily(!) did not forget to include investment tips at the end.

    1. I am alternately vexed and fascinated, perhaps? Maloof vexes me. The phenomenon interests me. The Maier fans delight me.

    2. As a side note, it may interest you to know that according to alexa, (like many of the Serious Art web sites out there) actually has less traction than the almost-totally-unread blog you are currently enjoying.

    3. I consider it possible that literally dozen of people read my blog!

    4. Well, there my be 13 of us.

    5. And now these stupid dipshits are all like, 'we shouldn't even be talking about this kind of thing!'


  2. Timing is everything isn't it? Right place, right time, with an interesting story.

    Except as historical documents street photography doesn't interest me and B&W photo's don't fascinate me, so V.M. was just someone I read about on The Photoblographer but didn't give a second thought to. Just some crazy old lady that took a zillion pictures she didn't care enough about to print. It's kind of fun to see the rise and fall of her popularity.

  3. I find VM's life more interesting than her photographs. Lived in obscurity but felt compelled to walk around taking all kinds of pictures. Why. There are lots of people like that. Guys who build simply unbelievable model railroads, the details of which are incredible but largely of no interest. How many unnoticed volunteers are there living on your block? Makes me wonder what else we miss.
    It doesn't bother me that she had no coherent artistic view or plan. That's a lot to expect, I think. Anyway, you can always invent one of those later.

  4. Sometimes I don't get you Amolitor. Right, Vivian Maier is not the genious some guy pretended she was. So what ? Sure, she probably managed to produce only 100 good pictures and not more. So what again ? Of course, another guy found a way to make a lot of money out of her work after her death. Is this so surprising ? Yes, she probably did not have a plan for her work and might not be the best photographer of her time. Is this an issue ?

    So what is the point of this article ? All these things happen all the time. Vivian Maier never pretended to be an artist with a vision. A lot of photographer did not even produce 10 good pictures in their life. Not all artist are equally talented, and there should also be place for variety. My feeling when I read some of your post is a that they can be a mixture of negative views and sort of bitterness or anger about people sometimes for reasons that I frankly cannot understand.

    BTW, I hake stopped showing my own pictures partly for these reasons, as I am pissed off by such kind of prevalent global negative attitude about other people work. Don't get me wrong. I like sometimes what you write ; it is clever. And I am sure you are a lovely person. So this is not a personal criticism of you as a person. It is just that this is not a positive attitude and I frankly do not like it. I agree too that this is your blog, so this does not mean either that you even have to consider this remark. But frankly, you worth much more than that (and this is a compliment).

    BTW, I am not a fan of Vivian Meier work. But I dislike even more the attitude about her here.

    1. There is a difference between, say, Vivian Maier and Robert Frank, even though the sizes of their collections of "good ones" might be about the same.

      I think we can detect the difference, with some care.

      I think that the differences tell us a great deal about the nature of Art and the nature of Photography specifically.

      Maier strikes me as having been a perfectly decent old bird. My complaint, insofar as I have any, is not with her.

    2. There is value in reconsidering Vivian Maeir as a construct, and just as a photographer. To review her photographs and think about those two, separate things.

      To me, and apparently some others, she's the real deal, and merits the posthumous recognition however that came about.

      As far as the construct goes, that is the nature of the art business: every artist that has achieved recognition, gallery showings, sales and investors -- that is also a construct.

      Maybe it was a construct since before you were born, and has acquired the status of a cultural icon. Swell, a whole lot of money is in that, maintaining it, building it, so the investment grows. The art market consistently outperforms the stock market. Why is that?

      There are also the symbiotic intellectual investments, which may be very considerable: articles, papers, reviews, books, catalogs, academic careers, tuition-paying students...

      In the case of Vivian Maeir, a quick cruise by 'her' 'official' (really?) web site (aka, the Sam Maloof store front) shows her oeuvre is as yet very poorly organized, except by crude categories ("color", "street" and so on).

      Sam and his minions apparently lack the intellectual chops to make a very good, or persuasive construct. Vivian Maier's work -- the photographs -- is completely undiminished by this.

    3. The question Maier raises is fundamental.

      Is there even such a thing as talent, in photography?

      Anyone with a modest eye for filling a frame can simply shoot enough frames and produce a proper Artistic Body Of Work consisting of 100 photos. You can argue the point, I suppose, but I don't see how it's not true.

      One school of thought is surely, "no, there is no such thing as talent, it's just a baseline eye for form coupled with persistence."

      Another is that there is such a thing, and then seeks to dig out what it might be, how one might identify it, and how the 100-odd photos would look different.

    4. The short answer is yes, there is such a thing in photography and elsewhere.

      There are also such things as luck, education, mentors -- all things that contribute to the construct. One might even say that talent is optional.

      Was Robert Frank talented, before Walker Evans took him under his wing and helped him secure the Guggenheim fellowship, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that led directly to "The Americans" ? (I'm gonna go with probably)

      Is his talent demonstrably greater than Vivian Maeir, who (apparently) did not seek such opportunities, and certainly did not obtain any, because given her gender and social status, she didn't have a snowball's chance in hell anyway ?

      I'm gonna go with if so, I don't see it: he took great pictures but not invariably. Actually some of his individual shots in The Americans are more than a bit meh, what sets them off from everyone else's meh shots of the day, is he dared to stick them in a book.

      Vivian Maier also took great, and not so great photographs. If you started sifting through all your photographs, you'd probably find some great shots.

      I wonder if you would recognize them though.

    5. Correction: Sam Maloof was a famous cabinetmaker, John Maloof is the promoter of all things Vivian Maier.