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.