Virtually unknown until 1963
If the shifting tastes of history's gatekeepers are any guide, probably plenty. Giants such as Atget and Lartigue weren't recognized until very late in life, and the reputations of Watkins, Disfarmer, and E.J. Bellocq weren't made until after their deaths. Even 20th century keystone Walker Evans had fallen into near obscurity forty years ago before being resurrected in the 1970s. And of course currents can run the other direction. William Mortensen, anyone? Photographic history is in constant flux, and the inclusion of people like Maier in that history seems as dependent on chance and timing as on merit.
Probably the photographer whose story is most similar to Maier's is Angelo Rizzuto. Shooting the streets of New York in the 50s and 60s he amassed over 60,000 negatives which lay buried in total obscurity until Michael Lesy took an interest and published some of them posthumously in the 2005 book Angel's World. Rizzuto and Maier seem driven by the same internal logic, to just go out and make photographs obsessively with little regard for their later curation.
Virtually unknown until 2005
As interesting as Rizzuto's life was, I don't think his talent was in the same class as Maier's. There is a certain caged-animal intensity to them, as if he were making photographs not so much out of curiosity but simply because was helpless not to. Maybe he felt called, but that doesn't mean he'd found his calling. And indeed Lesy's interest seems spurred more by his lifestyle and outsider charm than his images.
To me, from what I've seen to date anyway, Maier was far more visually gifted. Her images are shockingly good. They deserve attention, a book, a show, whatever it takes. Looking at them I wonder Where in the world did she come from? How did she remain in obscurity all these years? And the least answerable question, How many other Vivian Maiers are still out there undiscovered?
I think plenty. Assessing the field of photography is as self selecting as measuring the unemployment rate. Only those actively looking for work are included in unemployment statistics, and those who've given up aren't counted. The fine art photo world operates in a similar way. It's very good at monitoring the progress of motivated self-promoters, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. Quietly obsessive folks like Vivian Maier are not included in the equation.
Virtually unknown until 2009
The situation has recently been complicated by the internet. In one sense it's great. The bar to distribution has never been lower, and anyone can get their work seen. When John Maloof wanted to get the word out about Maier the web was the natural channel. But what about all the people who don't use the internet? Yes, there still are some out there --Maier for one. I know a handful of other photographers with no web presence. They are great shooters but they're not part of the discussion.
The other X factor in recognition is a curatorial champion. Bellocq had Friedlander. Atget had Abbot. Disfarmer had Miller. Without their discoverers, these photographers might still be anonymous. For Maier it's been John Maloof. An interesting mental experiment is to wonder what would've happened had Maier posted her own photos on a blog while still alive. Would they have the same impact? Or would they just be another series of old images from some self-promoting has-been? Surely some of the intrigue in the situation and the interest in her photos comes from the storybook quality of their discovery. Such cases seemingly need an outside agent, someone aside from the photographer to direct society's attention. These folks are the historical gatekeepers.
All of which brings us to the curious case of Robert Bergman. Just last year, he was basically in the same boat as Vivian Maier. Yes, he'd published a book of portraits but that was many years ago. Since then his book had languished on the shelves in various used photography sections available for a few dollars. Bergman is an amazing talent and the book was fantastic. But who cared? Very few of us. So, like many wonderful photographers Bergman eventually sort of gave up. Figuring that his "emerge" date had passed, he stopped showing work in galleries, stopped showing to curators or collectors. By late middle age he had self selected himself out of the fine art photo equation.
Published in 1998 but virtually unknown until 2009
But then something happened. What it was I have no idea. His work had been out there all these years. Nothing in it had changed, but all of the sudden people began caring about it. For whatever reason he was transformed overnight into hot shit, offered concurrent shows this winter here, here, and a here. Why? I'm stumped. Not that the work isn't deserving. It is and always has been great. But what changed and why now? Was it chance? Timing? Merit? More importantly, how many Bergmans are there out there undiscovered?
I think plenty.