Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Q & A with John Maloof

B: What was your photography background before acquiring Vivian Maier's work?

John Maloof: I had absolutely no photography background. I had a point-and-shoot camera that I used to take pics of homes for my real estate profession and for the historical society that I was president of at the time. I ended up taking a class at Wright College (a community college in my neighborhood) after I bought her rolls of film, but I dropped it after I learned to develop rolls and prints. I wanted to learn, first hand, how this process takes place and to get help with my own work in film.

I'm curious about the logistics of finding her work. There are a lot of old photos out there. It seems unusual for someone with no photo background to recognize so clearly how good these were. When you saw the work at auction, what was it that grabbed you? Did you decide immediately that you were interested or did it take longer to develop?

It's a rather long story, but I'll try to be as concise as I can. I was co-authoring a history book on the Chicago neighborhood Portage Park with a friend, Daniel Pogorzelski. We were looking for old local photos for the book. I saw that they were vintage and that there were a lot of images from Chicago, so I placed an absentee bid on the box, came back near the end of the auction, and realized that I had won. We both looked through the box, nothing was good for the book, so I stashed them in the closet for a few months.

When we finished the book, I started to scan them to see what I could use them for. Since I was quite involved in historic preservation on the city's Northwest Side at the time, the images were interesting to me from a historical perspective and the more "catchy" images are what caught my eye as someone who knew nothing about street photography. I found myself taking the same pictures that Vivian would take (here's an example ). I began following in her footsteps in mid 2008 and slowly got into photography by studying its history, reading books, watching the BBC 'Genius of Photography' special over and over on Tivo, etc. I started to get a feel for her work more as a street photographer over time. I then decided to collect the rest of her work and set out to do so, acquiring about 90-95% of what is known to exist.

As I understand it, there were two separate auctions for her work, and between the two auctions interest increased a great deal. I can see from the last answer how your own interest in her grew between the auctions, but what else was happening at the time that caused general interest to grow among others?

This auction house operates out of a resale store and they have auctions once a month (sometimes twice a month). Vivian's stuff was auctioned off about two or four weeks apart in between. Most of the people at the auctions are regulars and have their own business as flea marketers, eBayers, collectors, etc. I've been going to these auctions for many years now since it's literally a half block away from my home, in Portage Park. There were two auctions, but most of the work was in the second auction, the one that I attended. Vivian's possessions accounted for only a tiny fragment of what was being auctioned off. They have a giant space filled with many different things that go up for auction.

My interest in her work didn't grow between auctions because I was only at the second auction. These auctions are not geared toward fine art or photography, they mostly sell boxed lots of miscellaneous household items, antiques and furniture. Here's the website to give you an idea.

RPN Sales in Chicago, where Maier's work was auctioned

Keep in mind that our publisher Arcadia Publishing required approximately 220 high quality, antique photos of the subject matter. Both my co-author and I scoured places such as the Chicago Historical Society, Harold Washington Library, the Sulzer Regional Library, and a host of other institutions to try to find pertinent images. Chicago's Northwest Side (where Portage Park is located) is vastly unrepresented in these archives. In fact, this is probably the greatest challenge in writing a book from the 'Images of America' series. This is the reason why I was so interested in trying to find these local photos and willing to take a chance on a huge box full of negatives.

Your editing so far has been great. I'm curious if you have any help with that or just a natural sense of it. Can you give a sense of how much editing is happening? Are you showing 4 pictures per roll, 1 picture per roll, less than that. Are there many Maier shots that just flat out don't work, that you eliminate from consideration immediately?

Yes, I've been consulting experts such as Joel Meyerowitz, Ariel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck from early on to seek advice. By the way, I'm trying to convince Joel to include Vivian in the next edition of Bystander and there's some likelihood that he will, which is very exciting.

He'll have to convince Westerbeck.

Joel cautioned me early on not to slant the work in ways to reflect other photographers such as Arbus or other influences. I've been careful to not just put what I think are the best images but, to post what I feel are strong images, factoring as much information and history as possible behind my decision. If I were to post all of only work that resembled, for example Institute of Design photographers, then, although it would still be good work, it would look like derivative work from photographers such as Callahan or Siskind or Ishimoto. There is no evidence of inspiration from these masters. However there is almost certainty some of it in some form, but since I don't know for sure then I can't slant it in only one direction since there may have been a several influences. Does that make sense?

Dark Alley, c. 1950s, Vivian Maier
Homage to Maier, 2009, John Maloof

I don't get help with my posts from anyone, actually. From the 10,000 negatives that have been scanned, I have edited roughly 900 strong images from them and that gets narrowed down to about 400 very strong images. From that folder, I visit it from time to time for a new post. I don't post everything at once, I'm not exactly sure why, I just don't.

Regarding the per-roll question, I'm not sure what roll they came from when they get posted, there's no frame of reference by that time.

But surely you must document which image comes from which roll. How else can you archive them?

Let me clarify. We haven't scanned any of the newly developed rolls yet really. All negatives are documented based on the writing from the vintage negative sleeves she kept them in, which, for the most part, have at least a date on them. They are organized and scanned in chronological order by date they were taken. The work is from 1951 to 1995, although I know she shot as recently as 2006, according to Central Camera shop here in Chicago.

But, based on my statement above she has a very good average for a photographer, in my opinion. And sure there are rolls that are completely not worthy of posting. From the immense research that my colleague, Anthony Rydzon, and I have conducted, we can place an fairly accurate time line on Vivian's life and work. The later work gets a bit different, not necessarily in a bad way, but it's definitely not as strong, especially her color work. So yes, many images don't make the cut. Actually most don't, which is only natural.

What is the process? Do you scan and archive every image regardless of its aesthetic quality? Do you make any sort of digital contact sheet or what?

Every single negative is scanned in as we go along, whether or not it's good. We don't create contact sheets. We just make small JPEG 'proof's', if you will, which makes scanning go faster. Joel has helped us install a system that can organize these much more efficiently which is what we're working on implementing currently.

Has your sense of Maier's work changed since you began editing? Are there some photos you included at first that you wouldn't now?

I have good reason to believe she began taking pictures in about 1949. Negatives from this year and even a year later have a beginner look to them. They are either over or under-exposed, out of focus, clumsy compositions, etc. But by the time she came back to New York from France in 1951, she had a good sense of her own interests and curiosities as a photographer. From 1951 to the mid-1970's, her work was solid with no noticeable learning curve from what I can tell.

From the mid 1970's through 1995, she definitely has a change in style. She switches to color in the mid 70's, uses a 35mm camera (mostly a Leica), and I get the feeling that she is seeing the world differently at that time. Her work becomes more abstract in some respects, but also very literal in others. I'll explain. Her abstract work often involves found objects either on the curb, in a garbage can or a similar setting. Some are quite good but there are so many that just leaving me scratching my head as to what she was trying to get across with the picture. The literal work is usually angled towards political, racial, or religious views. She seemed to be a liberal and of no known religious beliefs and so she would document graffiti, newspaper headlines, and racist slogans on park benches, for example. People were still in her photos, but it wasn't a dominating content at this time.

These are old rolls you're dealing with. Any noticeable defects after developing? Are you taking any precautions due to their age?

The rolls that are undeveloped have to do with the issues she was dealing with during her time line from what we discovered. She lived with the first family as a nanny for about 17 years and had the luxury of a darkroom to develop her rolls and to print with an enlarger. When she grew out of that job in 1971, then the undeveloped rolls started to pile up. This is roughly when they are dated too, from 1969-1974-ish. So this makes sense to me. The rolls are vintage and I have specifications to push them to the maximum amount of developing time before the emulsion separates from the backing. This results in most negatives developing perfectly. Only some have a very faint fog (an even fog, not spotty), but they have been perfectly salvageable so far. Since we don't know what directions to specify with each individual roll, they must follow the most safe guidelines that maximize the outcome for the rolls in general.

The color rolls on the other hand are not looking very good. They are mostly from 1970's-1980's and Ektachrome, color, 35mm. The few that have been tested have been unsalvageable. I'm hoping to figure out a solution and I plan to contact Kodak to see if they're interested in helping.

What do you expect to happen to all of her photos and negatives eventually? Do you anticipate owning them indefinitely?

This is something that I feel is too early on to know. Her collection was rejected by MoMA last year. I should definitely note that I have been consulting with some of the best (unbiased) experts in industry for advice on this matter such as Joel Meyerowitz. Joel has been a huge help over the past year. He's helped me facilitate a filing database for her work, the same one he uses for his own work. He has been generous at helping me figure out what my options are moving forward and has referred me to others that will be helping me in other specialized ways.

I understand that people want to know if I'm trying to cash in on this woman's work. That's not my mission. However, since I'm dealing with mostly negatives, the major institutions in the world don't seem interested in printing posthumous prints for their museums and I can understand why, in a way. This is the main problem that I honestly feel will make it difficult to get past with institutional housing of her work. Having said that, I feel that there is a way to find a middle ground and perhaps set up an institution that can eventually fund itself. I think the work needs to be out there and in order to do that there needs to be an income stream to fund it. I have not committed to this model yet and will only do so if it is the best possible option for preservation and promotion of Vivian's work.This is more important to me than than anything else.

What about raising funds by selling prints to collectors? Are the prints in the current show for sale?

I haven't been able to archive her vintage prints in order to document what I have to get to that step. I will eventually. I have over 3000 of them and I think that they should be enjoyed by others as well. The prints in the current show are not for sale. It is a public venue and just for public display.

Good luck with the project. I don't envy all the scanning hours in front of you, but it promises to be worthwhile.


Dr. Mark said...

Traditional management methods for museums would have obliged MoMA to somehow separately turn up, at least implicitly, a cash endowment to care a donated collection of Vivian's material upon accepting it. They hesitated, of course. Those methods typically don't let museums use any of the financial value embedded in the donation to provide for its care. So, John has to consider other options besides donating to established major institutions playing by traditional rules.

That's not a bad thing, though, when you consider the limited exposure these institutions offer even major artists -- most material is in storage most of the time. Their funding methods severely limit what they can spend on exhibitions, research and conservation. Vivian's legacy could be far better served by John creating a new institution using better financial methods to provide much better care and outreach. He might then teach the older players something new about managing a museum and its collection.

John's in a pretty amazing position, and for that he's got to thank his own good eye, and Vivian's, and all the folks that appreciate one or the other or both.

brenda eden said...

Good Luck with your work John! Such a huge undertaking! Looking at Vivian's work transports me back to my photography history classes in college. Vivian's work seems to be just as amazing as the photographers that our professor Bill Jay told enthralling stories about. I wonder if Vivian was aware of the work of notable 19th and 20th century Cartier-Bresson....I wonder if there is any way to know....
So interesting! I will keep coming back to see more of her art.

James Warden said...

I'm curious what database is being used to keep track of the images

jfo5039 said...

They should sell the prints with a 1:5 years display option, so they can sill be shown publicly.

miccheckphil said...

I have not received the book with Vivian Maier's work. I ordered it earlier this year on line and paid with a credit card.