Monday, December 27, 2010

Thoughts on Maier

Leave it to an investigative journalist to dig up the dirt. Nora O'Donnell's recent essay on Vivian Maier delves deeper into her backstory than anything else I've seen. Thanks, Chicago Magazine.


While the basic outline of her life life is now fairly well established, Maier still remains something of a mystery. For me the most intriguing questions center on her photographic skill. How did she gain such a sharp eye? What training did she have? Which photographers or photographs did she come in contact with? Who if anyone helped her develop? Or was she a pure autodidact?


The article doesn't really touch on these topics, probably because it's written from a journalist's point of view as a human interest story. When Phil Donahue asks “Is there a preponderance of evidence out there that these [photographs] are really special?” he is probably voicing the question on the lips of many nonphotographers. Boxes of dusty negatives? Doesn't everyone have those in their attic? What makes these any different? Most people are like Phil Donahue. They can't really judge.

It's up to the photography world to explain what sets these apart. Unfortunately the only photography expert quoted in the story has totally missed the boat. Colin Westerbeck says that the photos don't stand out from other Chicago photographs. Not enough irony or wit. Too much participation in the scenes. "The greatest artists," Westerbeck says, "know how to create a distance from their subjects."


What? I'm afraid I have to agree with Tiffany Jones here. That sounds like a complete load of shit. First of all, these photographs are as witty and cleverly constructed as any street photos out there. They may not be ironic, but since when is irony a requirement for quality, especially in mid-century photography?

Not distant enough from their subjects? I suppose that would discredit Arbus, Model, Hine, Atget, Sander, Weegee, Brassai, etc. Sorry guys, you'd be great artists if only you'd created more separation. Maybe Maier isn't as cool and calculated as Callahan or Ishimoto, but I actually view that as a plus. She's so present in her photos. It's an amazing gift. In short, critique is fine but please comment on what she is rather than what she isn't.

I suspect Westerbeck's assessment may have gotten sidetracked by Maier's storybook bio. Treasure trove nearly lost, found in an estate sale, etc. It's a great drama regardless of the photos.

But to me the story of Vivian Maier isn't that her work was lost and rediscovered. It's the work itself that matters. Her photographs are among the most vibrant street shots I've ever seen. I'm not sure which photos Westerbeck has already viewed, but I suggest he devote more hours to looking through Maier's archives. The quality and consistency of vision will prove impossible to miss.


The danger is that Westerbeck's Chicago Magazine opinion will set the tone for future appraisals. Once someone of his stature has chimed in other critics are likely to follow his cue. Worse, it may pave the way for misappreciation by society at large. Most folks are like Phil Donahue. They need a curator to tell them which photos are important and which aren't. To a layman writing or reading a magazine profile Westerbeck becomes the voice of authority.

The X factor in all of this is John Maloof (and now to a lesser extent Jeff Goldstein). Not only does he determine which images Westerbeck will judge, he controls which images any of us see. Although there are a few similar cases in history in which the fate of a photographer hinges on just one gatekeeper, this seems like an extreme example. To date, Maier's legacy has been completely tied to and dependent on Maloof. So far the editing has been wonderful. The images in this post —plucked at random from recent posts on Maloof's blog— are testament to that.

But I can't help wondering about the process. How much weeding out is occurring? How active is the curating? How much of what we are seeing is Maier's vision, and how much is Maloof's? Book, show, and film are forthcoming. I for one am looking forward to all of them.

49 comments:

bryanF said...

There's an interesting discussion on MeFi about when her work first hit the web and who discovered it.

http://www.metafilter.com/98950/Vivian-Maier-follow-up#3438490

Wayne said...

This is an extremely good body of work. Is it up there with the greatest? Nobody can make the judgement a few years after it's been discovered, it takes time to absorb.

Even despite the issue on Metafilter, Maloof has taken this as one of his life's projects. He does stand to profit, but he's investing years of his life into this, so I have to believe that he really believes. In this video segment with Maloof, they show her collection of books. I'm very curious about what photographers she was inspired by, who she studied.

I will probably donate to the kickstarter film project, but I would rather see the money spent on scanning and releasing the photographs as the primary goal, whether in book form or a higher resolution web archive.

Stan B. said...

"The greatest artists know how to create a distance from their subjects."

I don't know what Colin's credentials are for being a "photographic expert," other than being an idiot. But I think the the sheer scope and quality of Ms. Maier's work will ultimately have out.

Bellocq had Friedlander and Disfarmer had Julia Scully, both photo insiders who had the knowledge and contacts to do their discoveries right. It seems Mr. Maloof has come a long way from selling Ms. Maier's negatives piecemeal on eBay (shudder at the thought), and has really come round to doing her legacy justice in the best manner he possibly could- and for that he is to be commended.

This is a major American art icon regardless of time or medium. As you well point out, there are still many questions to be asked as to her education, Mr. Maloof's editing, etc. But I am very much looking forward to seeing the book, film, and hopefully, the actual prints!

It's a pity Ms. Maier's American Dream will occur posthumously- perhaps she would have preferred it that way.

Blake Andrews said...

Add Atget's Abbott to the list, but along with Scully and Friedlander I don't think any of these folks were operating in isolation. I think they had a lot of help editing/curating. My impression is that Maloof is flying solo.

Westerbeck is no idiot. He's very knowledgeable about street photography which is why his assessment of Maier is confounding.

Suzanne Révy said...

It's frustrating to read such asinine criticism and remarks from two powerful men dismissing both her and her work... Westebrook sees "engaging" with her subject as a flaw that makes her pictures uninteresting or not "stand out" which is precisely what makes them so strong, IMNSHO, and, more importantly different from the Callahan's, and I think adds to our understanding of the culture of the street from the time she was shooting.

And then to top if off, Phil Donohue dismissing her as simply the nanny. He clearly never bothered to get to know her while she cared for his kids. So, he needs evidence?

I would say the viral nature that the work has gone on the internet is plenty of evidence that her pictures have resonated with many people. Unlike Mr. Donohue, I don't need Colin Westebrook to tell me what to think of her pictures, and with any luck someone will write a more thorough, thoughtful and respectful critique of her work when they've got the archive fully organized.

As you state, it's about the work.

John Maloof said...

Blake, thanks for posting this. This topic is going to be getting more and more interesting as things progress. It's an important discussion.

I've spoken with Colin on the phone in the past and his words sounded more positive then, that was about a year ago. I'm guessing that Colin is going to be one of the many in the "art world" with the same type of opinions. I received a similar reaction from Michael Mattis (one of the top photography collectors in the world) who I also spoke with over the phone, and also similar reaction from Lisa Hostetler, (curator at Milwaukee Art Museum) whom I had lunch with in Milwaukee. Joel Meyerowitz, on the other hand, gave me a more positive vibe. He and Colin have been helpful with advice moving forward on this and for that I am grateful. However, I hope Colin will reconsider his words once he sees more of her body of work.

One thing's for sure, Vivian has a huge following. Whether she is accepted by the "art world" or not is another matter, but it would be a shame if the experts prematurely judge the work and stigmatize it from larger collections or museums.

In regards to my editing, about 10,000 negatives have been scanned in so far. About 800 (or so) are strong. Then that is narrowed down to about 400 very strong images for blog posts and will be in the exhibition/book/film,etc. There are still 90,000 more images to scan though. It is my eye so I can understand why people will wonder what I'm leaving out...I am still new to the field and I'm doing the best I can.

Barbara Fischer said...

I wish Maloof would get some help with the scanning and developing of the remaining negatives and films. At the moment he is looking at a workload that is well beyond the scope of a single person.
Until the whole body of work is known there can be no meaningful curating process.

Mike Peters said...

I believe that this is a very important body of work, but no one cares what I think. Ultimately, a consensus will form over the years, but not until all of the work is available.

It would be such a boon if an organization like the George Eastman House, or some other formidable institution with the proper curatorial and archival resources, not to mention better scanners, could step in and produce the work. Of course in cooperation with John Maloof, who certainly should retain rights to the collection.

I don't say this to disparage what John is doing, but to see the negatives in plastic tubs on the top floor of a wood frame house, it make me cringe to think of what could happen. The negatives deserve to be someplace safe and secure with humidity and temperature control. I'm a worry wart, what can I say.

John Maloof said...

@Mike Peters: The negatives and prints are stored in three 4-drawer fireproof safes with a fire rating of something like 1800 degrees for 1.5 hrs (but, there's a fire dept. only a block away) They're beasts, weighing about 900 lbs each! Also, they sit inside a room that is humidity controlled to between 30-50% relative humidity and cool. The bins are just out when we work on them. Everything scanned is backed up twice...I'm also a worry wart ;)

Eastman House is a good idea. I've contacted so many institutions that I may have already followed up with them, but I think it's worth checking.

Blake Andrews said...

Mike, I'd be embarrassed to show you my own filing system.

Maier may have a huge following but at this point I don't think that means much. Taylor Swift and Danielle Steele are popular too, but ultimately that popularity means nothing.

I think critical acceptance is more important. And I'm not talking about private collectors, who (as Maloof has discovered) have a conflict of interest when it comes to critical analysis. I'm talking about folks like Westerbeck, Meyerowitz, Eastman House, etc. Their positive opinions are vital.

Maloof's co-roles as collector and curator will probably come under scrutiny too, since they too involve potential conflict of interest. But hey, welcome to the art world.

Stan B. said...

I stand corrected Blake, and since Mr. Westerbeck is neither ignorant nor fool, the question must then be asked as to why he purposely went out of his way to dis Maier's work with such idiotic condescension. Anyone with a modicum of photographic knowledge can see just from the fraction of work thus far that these are not just a few lucky shots or a small and easily dismissed body of work. You could get away saying that about Angelo Rizzuto, but not Maier.

The other times I've seen such intentional put downs in the art world is when it comes to the issue of provenance. But that concerns established artists, could it be that in this case the issue at hand is that Mr. Maloof is, in fact, a photo outsider (unlike the three previously mentioned "discoverers") and that this work is going to be maligned by some simply because of that?

An unknown photographer of considerable talent "to be determined" has been discovered by an unknown. The apple cart has most definitely been disturbed. Intruders are not welcomed, reputations are to upheld, the power structure maintained. And of course, money is to be made here, or withheld.

Hopefully, the strength of Ms. Maier's work will be the ultimate barometer of her accomplishment.

ggl said...

If there is going to be a Vivian Maier book I am going to buy it, just to prove Colin Westerbeck wrong. Too much involvement? Give me a break. Maier used a Rollei TLR which actually encourages involvement, although many of the scenes are apparent snapshots. Whoever used a TLR knows how hard it is to do snapshots with it. What about Robet Doisneau [who also used a Rollei TLR for much of his early work]? Is he "too involved" as well? I know the recent trend in street photography somewhat discourages involvement, but that is no reason to discard early work with such opinions.

I trust Maloof's judgement. So far he selected very good photographs.

MarcWPhoto said...

My first thought, upon reading the critic's comment cited in your post, was, "What? She's like the Diane Arbus of Chicago, only with more talent and less wackadoodleness!" And, incidentally, without the money and the already successful photographer husband.

Now, obviously comparing talent (or, for that matter, wackadoodleosity) is a subjective exercise in most respects, but still, couldn't agree more with your concern. This is excellent work and deserves respect.

Droid said...

From what I've seen her work is worthy of detailed study. Her range is startling and she reminds me of a passel of photographers, from Arbus, to Levitt, to Soth, to Frank. I agree with Blake and find much of her work to be as engaging as any of the masters. It just needs some arranging/editing and that will come in time. Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

"Most folks are like Phil Donahue. They need a curator to tell them which photos are important and which aren't."
---------------------
Really? From what I've read of her bio, Ms. Maier managed to _create_ these images without the assistance of a curator or other "experts."

The thing that baffles me is that so many people are surprised by her abilities. Anyone who takes 100,000 images (particularly in the pre-digital, manual-focusing age) is going to develop certain skills. She or he is also going to tire of taking banal images and seek out the unusual. Who knows, perhaps the first 40 or 50,000 images depict smiling school children and lonely park benches and whatever other cliches you can think of.

plópez said...

I still have not read the comments, but as we talk about Vivian Maier, wanted to share this.

http://www.wttw.com/main.taf?p=42,8,80&pid=A1hO97qcWo7ViDL_rWniVH2LakYxNa7J

Karena said...

Blake this is excelllent work you have shown of Maiers' street phtography, no matter what any critic says.

Karena
Art by Karena

Bill Vaccaro said...

Being here in Chicago, I'm extremely excited to see the show when it opens next month at the Cultural Center. And I do think that John should contact both Alison Nordström and Tony Bannon at the Eastman House to get their appraisal of such remarkable work.

Blake Andrews said...

@Anonymous, I think you've misunderstood me. When I say most people need a curator to tell them which photos are important, I'm referring to average laypeople, not photo junkies like Maier. I suspect she had a good sense of that without being told.

Paul Russell said...

Good post, Blake.

TomK said...

I find Maier's work of extensive value in a variety of ways, both "artistic" and from a documentary standpoint. Just looking at work that a talented "outsider" artist in photography had decided to capture from her era has social and political implications as well.

Westebrook's flip analysis of her work is stupidity personified and an example of the inbred nature of todays art educational system and the need to compartmentalize to make sure everyone can make some sort of living off their expensive liberal arts education. You mean there's actually an accepted formula for Chicago street photography in the 40's and 50's and everything else is out? Please...

Poor Chicago, as anyone who has grown up there knows: always struggling with being the second (now third!) city, and always crying for attention with it's "me too" mewlings. Always trying to hire those "experts" in art and culture fields that they feel will show them the systematic outline of what they need to do to be taken seriously by those nasty boys in NYC and LA who just won't let you play with the ball. That's how you end up with people like Westebrook telling you what is and is not correct...

Let the work stand on it's own. Bravo for Maloof for not only thinking it might be of value to the community at large, but spending his time and money trying to do something about it; and learning a little something about photography as he does...

You can bet if Westebrook had "discovered" this work, he'd be trying to make hay out of it and pad his resume.

Francesco Gallarotti said...

I have liked what I have seen of her work since last year when I published a short note on the Green Tea Gallery Magazine.
What I am not liking it is how John Maloof is essentially exploiting this woman's talent to get himself a name in the world of artsy street photography.
I'd like to hear, Blake, what is your take on John Maloof, but I'll understand if you want to keep silent about. Of all people I think you are the only one not scared to just say what you really think.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps someone should have asked her about her work at the time. Zero fans then, tons now...

Jin said...

To me, it is of no importance to gain critical acclaim for Vivian Maier. No doubt it would be nice, but the provenance of the photos, the internet following that has developed and the fact that they are funding the film through Kickstarter all indicate to me that this is a whole new way of bringing work to its audience that is remarkable precisely for the fact that the critics have not all been positive.

Screw the critics, this is obviously a story that many people find fascinating whether it gains the stamp of approval of the establishment or not. I'm not sure why it's so important for Maier to become on par with Frank or Arbus or whonot - I think we all recognize that critical success has nothing to do with quality per se. I'm sure there are plenty of Vivian Maiers out there in every generation and style. It's great that this one has been discovered and brought public.

And for that reason, I don't think Maloof is exploiting the situation. He's done a ton of work and deserves the credit that he gets.

Blake Andrews said...

I can't really comment on Maloof because I've never met him and I don't know much about him. As I said in the post, I've been impressed with his selection so far, especially considering he doesn't have much photographic background.

I think he has capitalized on his find but I don't really hold that against him. It's enabled the photos to gain a wide audience which they otherwise wouldn't have.

Jin, interesting point. I guess it's fine to say "screw the critics" up to a point. But if they were on board it would really help this work gain more respect.

About Westerbeck (not Westebrook), I hate to read so many blanket statements slamming him. He really is an authority on street photography, and he doesn't necessarily represent the art-world boogieman. I disagree with his assessment on Maier (at least how it was portrayed in the magazine) but please cut him a little slack here.

TomK said...

Oops, sorry about the Westebrook reference instead of his correct spelling, I took it off someone else's post.

I don't know that I would refer to the criticism of Westerbeck as "slamming", but certainly people have the right to be incensed about someone in a position such as his marginalizing the work before it's true extent is even known. It's pure folly to start bandying about "absolutes" in a field such as art where very few absolutes actually exist (and change generation to generation) and in which most of them have been artificially manufactured.

These types of personalities and "critics" are who the Dadaists were revolting against low these many years ago.

While I question the idea that someone can be an "expert" in the area of curating street photography, I don't question the fact that someone might have spent years studying it, and learning what entrenched museums and art education systems deem "appropriate" in the field. And, that an institution might want to pay these people to enhance the values of their collections based on conventional thinking. But why does any of that concern us here?

Lat's face it, these people have a professional axe to grind that has nothing to do with us celebrating the work!

Ahmer said...

I watched the Chicago Tonight video very intently to see if I could find anything interesting in the footage.

Vide link: http://www.wttw.com/chicagotonight/video/A1hO97qcWo7ViDL_rWniVH2LakYxNa7J

To me the most interesting frame was at 5:26 when they show some of the books Vivian had in her collection. I could see a book of Berenice Abbott and another on Self Portraits but the one I found most interesting was the monograph of Gita Lenz who also had sort of a similar story of the discovery of her work, which in this case was discovered by an industry insider. Here is a quick synopsis about Gita Lenz on Aline Smithson's blog Lenscratch:

http://lenscratch.blogspot.com/2010/10/gita-lenz.html

I find it very intriguing that Vivian was so interested in Gita's work and perhaps her story.

I also think that she was fairly aware of the work of her contemporaries. Not knowing the exact dates these photos may have been taken, I see certain similarities in this photo by Vivian:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_YUrw6ooCZj4/TNGXScviKvI/AAAAAAAAA_A/65emTsi05Bg/s1600/color+3.jpg

with this photo by Harry Callahan:

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_MjHqFV54cGM/TQeevrnNO2I/AAAAAAAAFEA/lngQa2IZqvU/s1600/Harry_Callahan1.jpg

P.S.: Oh, and thanks for the work prints Blake. They are lovely. I still haven't tried the gum though.

Blake Andrews said...

I haven't seen the video yet.

As far as I know, the only Gita Lenz book was the monograph published in 2010 by Candela. This was more than a year after Maier died so it doesn't make any sense that she would have known about Lenz. I'm not sure how that wound up later on her shelf.

I think that living in Chicago there was a good chance she knew Callahan's photos and maybe even crossed paths with him.

John Maloof said...

Ahmer, the Gita Lens book was given to me by Gordon Stettinius as a gift. It was on my desk when they shot that...an accident. I honestly didn't see it until the video was aired. The others are hers though.

Tiffany Jones said...

Thanks for agreeing with me Blake! It's great to see discussion of the merit of Vivian's work carried further.

Francesco Gallarotti said...
What I am not liking it is how John Maloof is essentially exploiting this woman's talent to get himself a name in the world of artsy street photography.

My feeling, based on what came from Vivian's own mouth on the recording played in the Chicago Tonight video segment, is that she was happy to leave her legacy behind and let it be sorted however it may. Whether it all ended up in the bin or was revered by future generations (us) was to be decided by whoever's hands the work came into. She had every opportunity to plan for what would happen with the work, but she did not. She left it all in a storage locker.

Presuming Maloof has visions of getting rich off her legacy is rather cynical and probably especially naive. For all the work he's putting in (forget the money) - acquiring the raw material, scanning, archiving, promoting, organising, etc - he deserves to benefit something financially, no? And if he wants his face on telly so be it. But how rich could he possibly get? Even Larry Towell needs funding on kickstarter. Vivian's work will never sell as well as Ansel Adams, for example, or could it?

I think Vivian left behind a sort of a time capsule treasure, secretly hoping it would dazzle us all. I think she was obsessive and devoted to her photography and all the self portraits she did ensured that her authorship would be tied to it. Her participation with her subjects was elemental, crucial even, to her. This is her life story, the visual story of her time, and if anyone cared to piece it together then so be it.

I for one am thrilled to see such incredible images from a woman who didn't seek any recognition while she was alive. And from what I've seen I think her efforts dwarf some of those by her male contemporaries. That's no surprise to me, but women who work in this genre are too often marginalised and not taken seriously. Men rule this field, and in my opinion Vivian has beat them at their own game. Last laugh perhaps?

chuckp said...

One of the things that occurs to me while reading the peeved criticism about Westerbeck is that it's all based on what he was quoted as saying in the article. I strongly suspect that what he actually said, placed in the context of the original conversation, was probably a good bit more nuanced. Most curators, and particularly those at institutions like the AIC are not fools or, worse, defensive turf-protectors. In my experience these people are usually really smart, well-informed and highly Catholic in their tastes. Most importantly, they take their responsibility to the field seriously. Somebody like Westerbeck, who manages a Really Fabulous Collection at the AIC, looks at everything through the lens of the whole history of the medium. Maybe he doesn't see Maier as making it into the top echelon of photographic history. That's OK. That's a defensible position. Ain't many of us going to make it there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of exposures we make. This reminds me a lot of the bruhaha that erupted over Gary Stochl's work a couple of years ago, with a similar reaction from the curatorial world. I think some of this has to do with the time at which the images were made. Museum collections are about, among other things, establishing precedents. Every once in a while I'll shoot a pretty decent Gary Winogrand-like picture. Problem is, I'm doing it 40 years after he did, and somehow I don't think MOMA's going to be very interested in my work. That aspect of the museum collecting process has to influence the reaction of Westerbeck to Maier and whoever it was who wasn't particularly moved by Stochl. That's art. But Maier's work, regardless of what happens in the art world, has tremendous value historically for its sheer documentary value. Is that really such an awful thing?

J. Karanka said...

I discussed some of her photographs briefly with David Hurn, and he thought they were wonderful. There's something true about them, the lack of staging and the spontaneousnes (typo warning!) are very powerful.

jophilippe said...

@ Chuck

Nicely said and actually you are probably very right. And we don't really know the context of that statement from Westerbeck, maybe it was a rather informal remark based on few shots not meant to publicly comment the work. If so it is unfortunate that it has had such publicity.

What I personally don't get is the comment about "lack of distance" and irony", which is more a general statement that I think does not resist a deeper analysis (as Blake pointed out with other photographers). It is surprising from Westerbeck. Could be that he meant that with regards to contemporary trends, but even so that is quite confusing.

Stan B. said...

Chuck, FWIW, remember Maier preceded Winogrand, and Arbus- which should (supposedly, therefore) increase her worth, both as artist and commodity. Perhaps Westerbeck is being taken out of context- then I would certainly like to hear the full content of his argument. What gets under my skin is that what he said is such a basic generalization that not only doesn't make all that much sense in relation to her- it doesn't make all that much sense in relation to a host of other serious artists. And I really can't help but wonder if he would have said exactly that, in those exact words, had he a direct role in her discovery.

Suzanne Révy said...

@TomK and everyone, my bad on misspelling Westerbeck's name. Sorry about that.

@ChuckP, indeed, the quote in the article from him annoyed me, and I suspect, as you say, it's been taken out of context for the purposes of the article.

It seems premature to offer such criticism when there's still so much of the work that hasn't been seen, and hope we'll see a thoughtful assessment of it when the work is fully edited and organized. I really can't see it not deserving some kind of critical consideration... even if it has become popular on the internet.

Blake Andrews said...

I've finally seen the video. Very well done. The Gitz Lenz book is even more misleading in the video than I expected. It's stuck right in the thick of it with no disclaimer. Makes me wonder about the other titles, though I know I probably shouldn't. Struth's Friends and Strangers was another that caught my eye. I guess in Struth's world it could be seen as streety, but still more artsy/conceptual than most of her other books.

I suppose without much to go on, the imagination starts running wild...

Nora O'Donnell said...

Thanks for linking to my article, Blake. I've enjoyed reading the discussion on your blog.

I wish the story could have been longer. There was so much to tell. I hope John's future projects will be able to reveal more about Vivian, but I found her a tough nut to crack. She was a complex woman!

P.S. A bit of back story on Phil Donahue: When Vivian was working for him, she never let him look at her photos. When I got in touch with him, he had no idea Vivian was a talented artist. I sent him the link to John's blog. He was very impressed. But like any good reporter, Donahue asked a legitimate question: Do experts think her work is any good? I was a bit disappointed by Westerbeck's response, but I thought it was interesting. Other experts couldn't be reached for comment. I'm not an authority, but I love her work.

Nora O'Donnell said...

To Stan and Suzanne: Westerbeck's quotes were not taken out of context. We fact check our stories.

Zisis Kardianos said...

Excellent post Blake and together with the responses and Mrs O'Donnell's article, round up an interesting story so far.
I have a problem coupling Westerbeck's opinion on Maier with the acute writer of "Bystander".
I also found queer the way Gita Lenz book appeared among the others. Makes you wonder.
As a side note I want to say that the blog edit of Maiers's photos, is becoming more assured and crisp.
John is doing an excellent job and he is aquiring a sharp eye, good judgement for street photography and a better understanding of Maiers work. As he delves deeper in the archives, I expect more gems to be uncovered.

Blake Andrews said...

The video offers commentary from one other unnamed photo expert. He says the upcoming show features 15 photos "as good as any by anyone from that time" or something to that effect. I'd probably agree with that.

I'm curious if it's a given that the show will be printed digitally from scanned negatives, as most shows are nowadays. Considering her legacy and timeline, maybe it's more appropriate to print them as silver gelatin darkroom photos. Anyone have info on this? Maloof?

John Maloof said...

Blake, to answer your concern about Gita Lenz...ugh, I wish I spotted that when they were here shooting. It's my book, not Vivian's.

Regarding the prints, they're digital inkjet prints. I'm actually the printer. With almost 80 prints, matts, frames, ink, paper, etc...I can only afford to do what is within my means so these are printed by myself. However, even though I don't have much background in this, I think I am very critical, sometimes overly critical, and try to get as much input from experts as possible.

Gordon Stettinius said...

Hey Blake, John... and others... I am sounding off as the person guilty of sending the Gita Lenz book along to John. I sent him a copy of her book because I admired what he is doing, because I have enjoyed so many of the images I have seen, because I understand something of the workload regarding his efforts on VM and ultimately because I related to the adventure in general. I have had a few people contact me about the erroneous inclusion of Gita's book and that is an impressive pickup on their part. But it is merely a random moment in an otherwise compelling story for which John is to be commended. Sorry to see that gift of a book muddy the waters a little but that incongruity will soon be forgotten beneath the magnitude of effort and intention and integrity present in this project.

On to the rest of my impressions, I believe I agree with the folks who feel there is a defensible opinion here regarding VMs relation to the greats. But in no way is it time to dismiss her critically as there is so much more work to unfold. This is exciting to watch and as such is a developing tale. Excellent really and I am excited to see the backing for it.

As for the profit, I will say that I have personally experienced a similar financial transaction in my project and while I do expect to (hopefully) subsidize some of my costs associated with making a book of Gita Lenz' work, I will probably not be adequately compensated for what took me three or four years of serious part time work. And who the hell cares? John should get some credit for the risk he is taking and the ride he is taking the photo world on. This is brilliant and as for his experience, he is getting a hell of a lot of it in a short time.

Gordon Stettinius said...

Certainly, it does help to be a photographer before becoming an editor, but I think the public unfolding and scrutiny (and yes, the potential reward) of this project will keep John fairly earnest in his pursuit of the best edits of her work. But honestly, has anyone stopped to question if any of the great books out there are the best edit possible? The great books (and artists) are good enough to earn accolades but are they always presented in the best light? Besides having seen Robert Frank's The Americans show at the Met a year where the curtain is pulled back on the editing process of that incredible journey, I have very little insight as to whether any of my most appreciated photographic volumes are so-called "best edits". This is a subjective world we traffic in. And Vivian didn't seem to give much attention over to editing. This is her oversight, not his. Or it is her lack of foresight or lack of confidence or her lack of interest in editing because maybe, ultimately, she was a shooter. I love shooters. We need to give John a little room to move on that point.

The movie, the book, etc... I am excited for them.

Last thought and I am surprised it took fifty comments to get there... Blake's question of the digital prints is a good one. I have often wondered about the prints themselves. And the question of digital printing for exhibition does open some questions. With Gita's work, I basically addressed the question of having many boxes of prints by an artist and even though that gives me a strong indication of her instincts, still I felt that I was wandering without a map regarding the edit she would like to see in a book. A different book would have been made with another person at the helm. There were a lot of cues for me regarding this but ultimately, the reason why these can be seen as collectible is in some part determined by her reverence for the photograph as object. Perhaps, as judged by the other titles in VMs collection, she also revered the photo as object but without demonstrating the painstaking care it takes to create a printed legacy, the only thing certain is VM had a reverence for the image, perhaps moreso than the object. So, I wonder about the idea of presenting her work in some kind of vernacular form as well as the “exhibition” version.

And I confess a weakness for the idea of gelatin silver prints feeling more contemporaneous than digital ones but that is a bias that feels a little flimsier as I check out the work on the walls of many institutions these days. Perhaps, given the high interest in the project, a kickstarter project for gelatin silver printing might be a thing for a separate show?

It is an odd and elliptical thing trying to retain the spirit of an artist when they have moved on from the work. This is a great discovery and surely will provide an impetus for others to make similar re-discoveries. Cheers to that!

Blake Andrews said...

Gordon, I think your political portraits are seeping into your writing. "I believe I agree with the folks who feel there is a defensible opinion here regarding VMs relation to the greats." Does that mean you think Maier belongs with the greats or not? Also, it's not to me clear if you think silver gelatin is the way to go for printing.

About editing, I agree there's a wide variety in the canon. Some folks like Evans or Soth put great emphasis on sequencing and collective meaning. Others don't care so much, or maybe aren't in position to control it. In the case of Maier I think the editing will make or break the work. She has many strong images but if they aren't edited smartly they could fall flat.

I've been rather dumbfounded at all the recent Maier posts sprouting up in the past week on many blogs. I'm not sure what inspired it, maybe the Chicago TV profile. Who knows? It's a huge wave of interest, wave number three by my count since last fall, each one bigger than the last. Sorry to add to the hype, even if inadvertently. If I'd had any idea that others would write about this I probably wouldn't have posted anything.

jophilippe said...

"I've been rather dumbfounded at all the recent Maier posts sprouting up in the past week on many blogs"

Indeed. Not sure what you mean exactly here Blake and if you are sarcastic or not. I'm a bit pessimistic myself (by nature) and what I fear is that passed the 5th or 6th wave there will be low tide. I suspect the story itself and how much compelling it is overpowers the work in some way. At least there is a risk for that as long as a deeper critic, historical perspective is not done on the work. That is why I find Westerbeck's statement unfortunate because as you said it might "set the tone for future appraisals" (or lack thereof), and I believe (at the risk of sounding old-fashioned) that whatever tsunami there could be on the net VM's work will need what is called an "autorized" opinion to stand out in the long run.

Silver print if I'm asked. But in fact it is more of a conventional/conservative choice and I have no special opinion about that. And it is not only about silver vs inkjet. The work exhibited should be consistent, and I would suggest to avoid making it look "vintage" in some way. There was an interesting discussion about the prints from the HCB exhibition at MOMA last year, can't recall the link.

Gordon Stettinius said...

Aaah. As it reads, I have to say that I am less wishy and more washy on the two ideas you called me out on.

I meant to say that I feel Westerbeck's opinion re VMs work is defensible in an everyone is entitled to their opinion sort of way and it doesn't seem startlingly unfair to say someone so obviously talented does not, in one person's opinion, belong with the "greats." Because how many greats are at the top and how many stripes of great are there and how do these titans shift according to who is doing the assessment of greatness. So, as confusing as that is, I think her work is extremely interesting and potentially great according to some arbiter or another but it is too early to tell. I won't however get all twisted up inside by someone with a different opinion, however premature.

As for the silver printing... I am very interested in what vintage prints there are. Be they printed by VM or simple vintage lab prints, I am interested in them. They might be a component of a compelling exhibition. I much prefer silver prints to digital but if the silver prints are not printed by the artist, I think that specific degree of separation makes it a little less important which manner the prints are presented in.

I would prefer darkroom prints as they would feel more contemporaneous to the imagery but I am thinking very good digital prints could possibly do many if not most images justice. In my own experience, there are some difficult negatives that are easier to scan and print than they would be to interpret in a darkroom. And sometimes the best print possible from both techniques can be quite different in character. So, trying to pull effective prints is important, consistency is important. I prefer analog gear in general, so I also would prefer it for her but more importantly, I would love to look through the extant archive...

Federico said...

I've been loosely following this story, visiting Maloof's Maier website for some months. It seems a bit too good to be true, and I can't help being reminded, from time to time, of "The Blair Witch Project". Is anything of that sort at work on any segment or at any level of this project? The pictures themselves, though, apparently deny this possibility.

From what we've been able to see, I think it's a fantastic body of work. The prints should be gelatin silver, no question for me about that. If I buy the whole story, I can´t but congratulate Maloof. I am however a bit worried that a treasure of this calibre is in the hands of a selfproclaimed newcomer with little photography background. The way to really honour this kind of work is for Maloof to team up with experts, George Eastman House as someone suggested, or some institution of similar weight. He clearly shouldn't efface himself from the project, far from that, but to become the one responsible of the actual prints??? Ouch! I don't know John, either, but I've been a photographer for twenty years and I am sure that the printing should be in the hands of a professional. The edition would also benefit from pro-input.

jophilippe said...

"the printing should be in the hands of a professional"
That makes sense, of course.

Concerning inkjet vs silver I think it depends on the usage of the prints. Inkjet can be very suitable to have a portable portfolio to bring along. But I am concerned about how they will look in an exhibition room, even if well done, because many of VM's images are low-key and have much dark in them. The resulting glare of ink could be very problematic in an exhibition room (as opposed to much less reflective gelatin silver).

Blake Andrews said...

The knives have begun to come out.