I've written a fair bit about Vivian Maier over the years.
The Curator of the Estate
Vivian Maier Again
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.