Monday, October 19, 2009

The Flame of Recognition

Now that the dust has begun to settle from last week's Vivian Maier maelstrom (with posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, not to mention here), it's time to dig a little deeper. Bryan Formhals poses the natural next question, "How many other Vivian Maiers are still out there undiscovered?"

Mr Folletete (Plitt) et Tupy, Paris, March 1912, J-H Lartigue
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.

Self Portrait, 1960, Angelo Rizzuto
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.

Chicago circa 1960, from the Vivian Maier blog
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.

from A Kind of Rapture by Robert Bergman
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.


Stan B. said...

It'll be particularly interesting to see what develops (and how)since the curatorial champion in this case is also not a known "name." Lets's see what transpires when the major movers and shakers move in to make it all happen... Sadly, Mr. Maloof might be well advised to seek the services of a lawyer.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post Blake. I really hope this launches a nice discussion about some of these topics.

br said...

very excellent post....the currents and whims of established photo galleries, curators, etc. are subject to the interest and the myth-making potential of discovered artists. I would hope that the Getty or another well-funded institution would see the value of an excellent, unknown photographer and present it to the public.

Mike said...

I think you've nicely exposed some questions and concerns about the Vivian Maier photographs that haven't been raised elsewhere. There is certainly no guarantee that the current buzz on the web will translate into the kind of interest and committment that would appropriately preserve and develop the potential of Maier's legacy. Looking at some similar situations from the past is certainly useful, but not all that encouraging. Berenice Abbott purchased Atget's archive in 1927; it wasn't acquired by the Museum of Modern Art until 1968, and that was only after years of vigorous advocacy by Abbott.

A book with a representative selection of Maier's photos would be a nice step forward, but there is a lot more that would have to be done to realize the promise of such a find. For instance, before the archive becomes dispersed, it would be nice to establish some kind of chronology. John Maloof mentions on his blog that Maier had done some work in New York. Glancing through the postings on his blog to date, it is apparent that she also spent some time in San Francisco. Where else did she go? What were the influences on her work? Whose work did she admire? Was she a mentor to others? Answers to those kinds of questions are going to come only from a considerable investment of time and money in tracking down clues contained in the archive and from collateral research.

Blake Andrews said...

A book would be nice but until that happens I like the way Maloof has been doing it, posting a few photos a day to the blog. In terms of her legacy, a lot is riding on him. He is the developer, editor, and distributor. As far as I can tell he's the only person so far to even see her photos. So, that X factor of curatorial champion is very large in this case.

Doing a proper book or show with some chronology would seem to require having information about the negatives that may not be available.

I posted a note on HCSP asking Maloof if he knew anything about her training or contacts in the photo world. I can't believe she produced that work in total isolation. At the very least she must've seen other photographs in magazines or books. He hasn't responded yet. I think he has other stuff on his plate at the moment.

Anonymous said...

From the bits I've read, he really has no idea about her influences or process.

I suggested he send it over to the Lens Blog. It seems like the type of story they'd eat up. With this much internet buzz, I'm figuring it's only a matter of time before the right people pick up the story and give him some help.

I think it's interesting that he's showing so much of the work. For whatever reason, she kind of strikes me as the type of photographer who might be extremely selective about which photographs she would show. Can't help but thinking about Gary Stochl in all of this. In fact, it would be interesting if he got involved...

Ben said...

Gary Stochl. I was thinking of him too.

Blake Andrews said...

You're right. Stochl should be part of the discussion. He's probably a better match for Maier than Rizzuto. Like the others he had a backer, Bob Thall, who "discovered" him and promoted his work. As interesting as his photos are I have to say I like Maier's better.

K. Praslowicz said...

There is an antique store near my work that always has a lot of interesting prints for sale. I often browse them, and walk away with a few more for my own personal anonymous collection. From the style it seems very likely that they are all coming from one or two photographers.

I can't help but ponder if it would be worth my time to find out who stocks that booth. They seem to have acquired a lot of prints to resell. Maybe they are also sitting on pile of negatives as well and don't have any means to turn them into prints.

Anonymous said...

Blake: Why can't the street photography geeks on the web be the champions for Maier's work? Why do we need to rely on an institution or curator? in-Public IS a street photography institution. Certainly with the resources you guys have at your disposal you could make something happen. I mean, you've got Joel Meyerowitz in the group, probably the most legendary living street photographer.

On another note, I wonder when (or more likely if) some MFA student will create a set of photos that they sell at a flea market or to a vernacular collector like Amersand.

Blake Andrews said...

Sjixxxy, if the photos are of interest to you it's probably worthwhile investigating.

Interesting to speculate about overlapping influences in the recent spate of anonymous found-photo books and the recent flurry of newly discovered photographers (Stochl, Maier, Rizzuto...) Both somehow seem driven by a (quintessentially American?) anti-celebrity mentality, the belief that special things can come from an extreme variety of sources.

Bryan, IP is aware of Maier but there isn't much we can do beyond helping with internet publicity. We don't actually have many "resources" at our disposal if by that you mean oodles of funding. We're just another internet collective. I suspect Meyerowitz has other fish to fry besides dealing with Maier.

The MFA idea sounds great. I wonder if it's already been done? I can't help thinking of Masao Yamamoto's photos which have the texture and appearance of found photos, although they're anything but.

Freudus said...

Isn't that basically what Shore did with his home-made postcards in the 70s? He would secretly distribute them in the racks of gas stations and keep a note of how many, where etc.

Fascinating post, Blake - I'm sure I'm not the only one following the Maier saga with some interest. I work at a national newspaper in London and mentioned them to the picture editor the other day. I'll chase it up and see what they make of it...

Nick Turpin said...

You constantly thrill me with your knowledge and writing Blake, thank you for a thought provoking post.

I wrote to John Maloof expressing my interest in producing a book of Maier's work but he is, understandably, keeping his options open.
I certainly think it would be a shame if the work was not published at some point.

B. D. Colen said...

Fascinating commentary. But I have to questioning mentioning Bergman and Meir in the same breath. Meir appears to truly be an undiscovered giant, someone who privately, presumably for her own pleasure, produced work better than at least 90 percent of that being produced by internationally known photographers. Bergman, on the other hand, is someone who succeeded in a big way. You write, "yes, he'd published a book of portraits but that was many years ago." In the first place, 12 years ago hardly qualifies as "many years ago." In the grand scheme of things, in terms of a life in photography, that's "recently." Further, that book you toss off had an afterward by Toni Morrison and was published by Pantheon. I'd say that, in terms of the photo world, Robert Bergman hit a home run back in 1998; he was no nanny with a Rollei with a trove of unseen images. If he fell out of favor far faster than he gained it, well, such are the realities of the photo art world.
There are two, no three, things the discovery of Meir really serve to remind us:

First, for every "star" in every field of endeavor, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who are just as good who we never hear about;

Which brings us to point number two - it takes more than raw talent to make a "star" in any field, including photography; becoming a star also requires drive, determination, desire, ego, and refusal to be anything but a star;
And finally, as ugly a truth as this may be, it is true that "it's not what you know, it's who you know." Becoming "known" requires being known by the right people, which requires knowing people who know people who know people.

Sadly, the right people didn't find out about Vivian Meir until after she died.

Blake Andrews said...

All points well taken. A few people have mentioned Gary Stochl and in retrospect he may make for a better comparison than Robert Bergman.

Becoming a star is indeed hard work. There is also the extra element, particularly in Maier's case, of luck.

الفيسبوك said...

very fantastic shots