Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Maier at Hallward

For me the most noteworthy facet of the current Vivian Maier exhibit at Powell's Basil Hallward Gallery (drawn from the Goldstein collection) has nothing to do with the images. It's the fact that they are silver gelatin photos. That's a relative rarity nowadays, especially with contemporary work. Since the millennium began just 12 short years ago darkroom printing has quickly transitioned from mainstream to outlier.  Certainly there was no sign of it in last year's Vivian Maier exhibition at The Chicago Cultural Center which took the country by storm. Those were inkjets from scans, made according to current fashion.

Yes, the era of darkrooms has faded. But that happened to be the era that in which Vivian Maier lived. If she'd printed her own work during her lifetime they would've been silver gelatin prints made in a darkroom. So I think there's some poetic justice in applying that process now to her work. 

A shadow of the mysterious Maier, from the Goldstein Collection

The smallish (12 x 12) prints at Basil Hallward are probably better than Maier could've made on her own. The print quality is quite extraordinary. A crack-team of experts was hired for the task including master printers Ron Gordon and Sarah Steinbrecher from Chicago. They've done a bangup job with these. I did not see the Maloof show last year at any of its various stops, but it's hard to imagine those prints matching the craft on display here. 

In fact I think that may been some of the motivation to go down the silver gelatin route with these, to distinguish this show from the other one. Battle lines have been drawn. The two collections (Maloof Collection, Ltd and The Jeffrey Goldstein CollectionPerhaps the Ron Slattery collection will join the fray soon?) are basically competing for the same eyeballs, and of course the same pile of money. So any characteristic which is perceived as putting one above the other will probably be emphasized in the sales pitch. 

Wait a minute. Sales pitch? Yeah, sorry. I don't mean to reduce the show to a naked money grab, but there is certainly a golden goose dynamic here. If Goldstein had discovered a federal minting machine at an estate sale which could print old currency, the fallout would be roughly similar: Limited editions touring widely. The Basil Hallward prints start at $1800 and go up from there as the edition approaches the limit of 15. The other option is to buy the Deluxe Clamshell Edition book with print for $850. The Maloof Collection is structured similarly. One can buy prints or a book, or there is the additional option of buying the occasional vintage print made by Maier, for who knows how much.

Vivan Maier Deluxe Clamshell Book/Print Package

I suppose I can't begrudge anyone attempting to sell photos, and $1800 is near the going rate for a nice selenium-toned print by a respected artist. But at least when you buy a print from a living photographer you have a sense of direct support. Maybe they'll use the money for film or equipment or next month's rent. Or at least that's a story you can tell yourself. In this case? Not so much. Maier is dead. She has no heirs. Any sales proceeds will funnel straight to her self-appointed curators.  

I'm not exactly complaining here. I'm very glad these photos have been rescued and presented publicly. And I'm not naive. I know that collectors shape photographic history as much as photographs do. Still, the whole enterprise leaves me with a funny taste in my mouth.

But what of the photos? The Hallward show is very good. Not spectacular, but definitely worth seeing. This is in contrast to the Maloof Collection, which I would qualify as extraordinary based on what I've seen online. Whether it's through more conscious editing or because Maloof got the lion's share of what was out there, I give that collection the nod over Goldstein for sheer jaw-dropping impact. 

The curatorial approach is different as well. In contrast to Maloof's scatter-shot exhibition, The Hallward show puts Maier's work on a timeline and provides supporting historical text. We recount Maier's life, her early work with 35 mm, her transition to candid street portraiture, then her later fascination with formal abstraction. And of course running throughout her life are her hundreds of self-portraits which formed the default mode for her self expression. At the end of the timeline, after we read of her death and posthumous rediscovery, is the option to open the wallet and buy a chunk of her. It's a nice personal history but for me it was missing any explosive fireworks. There were no images here which stopped me in my tracks. But it was wonderful to see an entire wall of silver gelatin prints.

Vivian Maier is a continuing source of fascination for me. I love her photos. I love her life story. I will probably always enjoy any show or book of her work. I've written about her many times including here, here, here, here, and of course here in the early days of her rediscovery. 

But I can't help wondering what she might think of all this fuss over her? Would she approve? Or shrug it off? Would she demand a slice of the pie? Or would she just ignore it all and take her Rollei on a walk downtown? 

Vivan Maier: Out of The Shadows is at Basil Hallward Gallery, 3rd floor of Powell's, 1005 w Burnside in Portland through December 2012. 


Stan B. said...

Was not aware there was a gallery at Powell's Books (only been there once, years ago). Talk about a great two in one!

Can't wait till 2015, 2018, 2020... when all three have cashed in on as much cash as they can individually and finally negotiate for the definitive all in one retrospective volume extraordinaire! Just hope I'm around...

Blake Andrews said...

They get many good shows. Mostly other media but occasionally photography.

Good News Bible Corp and Custom Gun Makers of America said...

I'm waiting for some art critic out there to wave his magic wand of acceptability over Blake Andrews. He deserves it.

Anonymous said...

When are people going to recognize that Vivian Maier's greatest accomplishment was walking away from her work and doing what she enjoyed?

Blake Andrews said...

For any Portlanders who missed this show, it will be moving to Blue Sky for the month of February 2013.