Wednesday, May 14, 2014

More thoughts on Maier

I finally got a chance to see Finding Vivian Maier recently. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Going in I wasn't sure what to expect. I have mixed feelings about Vivian Maier and the way her legacy and has been handled. And this was a debut film by an untested film-maker which had received a range of reviews. Was it just a big commercial? Would it reveal secrets? I couldn't tell. I didn't even know if I wanted to see it. 

But I'm glad I did, because it was a very entertaining film. John Maloof and Charlie Siskel have made a strong human interest story which comes alive on screen. I was impressed. It even turned out to be a good date movie. Tab liked it. I liked it. Note that mutual agreement is not always the case in such matters.

The title is no accident. To the extent a documentary can have narrative arc, it's the tale of Finding. Maloof has rounded up a wide range of people who knew her in person —maybe all of them?— and through their comments a detailed character study emerges. It's largely the Vivian Maier we'd known before —Mysterious, dowdy, street smart, eccentric, intensely private, sometimes good with kids, sometimes definitely not— but fleshed out more fully. We see the neighborhoods she lived in, she small French village she visited, her Chicago street haunts. Given her private nature the viewers of this film may know her as well as anyone ever has. 
Whether she would want millions of strangers to know her is another story. I think not. But it's too late now. She's been thoroughly found.

At the center of it all, wrapped up inextricably with her story, is John Maloof. If Maier is famous for her self portraits, Maloof has taken a page out of her book for this film. It's as much about him as her. Where would she be without him? He is the yang to Maier's yin. Whereas she was private to the point of pathology, Maloof is a public relations whiz. He is a natural on camera, a star in the making. He's got, what do they call it? —screen presence. In some ways the two of them are an unlikely pairing. But they say opposites attract, and Maloof's passion for Maier drives the film. In casual conversation he refers to her familiarly as "Vivian"— as if they were old friends. The kids she nannied remember her name differently —"That's Miss Maier to you," and don't forget it.  

If you still believe in the American Dream, Maloof is Exhibit A. He's found a niche, he's worked his ass off to develop it, and he now stands to reap the benefits. He's made it to Hollywood! This is what makes Maier's lifestyle so confounding to Maloof. Why didn't she pursue the American Dream? She had amazing talent —Hollywood level talent. Or at least New York level. So why did she remain a nanny rather than try for a career in photography? For someone with Maloof's ambition this is the central riddle  —it's the root of the dream, dammit— and it becomes the crux of the film. If the job of nanny is uncreative and of low social rank —the film's dubious premise— wouldn't she be happier in her true calling?

That question will probably never be answered, but let's take a stab. For one thing, it's not as if one can just push the Fine Artist button and launch a photography career. For someone in Maier's social position during that era, and especially considering the transgressive material she was producing, it would've demanded a convoluted path. It would've required a motivated patron who could develop art-world connections and a collector base. Someone like Maloof, in other words. But he wouldn't come around until many years later, and Maier was not the sort of personality to achieve this on her own. So that was a barrier.

But that's presuming she would rather be a full-time photographer than a nanny. The fact is her lifestyle allowed her to be both. It's not as if she was washing dishes in a windowless room, then pursuing photography on the side. Maier practiced photography on the job every day. She used her kids as foils and took them on photo adventures. Far from being unfulfilling, nannying was perfect. Unlike most jobs she could actually get some meaningful work done while on the clock.

Nannying may have been ideal but it was, alas, a job, and had many non-photographic responsibilities. I think that when it all boils down, the main reason she was a nanny is the same reason most artists have day jobs: she had to make a fucking living. Simple. Ask any barista what they really care about and you'll get the same story. Because the best photography is generally not made by full-time professionals. It's made by clerks, copy writers, bakers, landscapers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics...and, yes, nannies. Buried talent is not an anomaly in America. It's the norm. 

Seen in that light, the mystery of Vivian Maier becomes less confounding. But there's still the question of her photography. I think most photographers —at least outside of MoMA— have a sense of Maier's magic, but it's difficult to convey, and almost impossible to imagine what could develop such astonishing talent. What was her training? What photographers did she study? Who did she talk to, see, or like? What stages did she pass through? What's the story

Unfortunately the film offers very little background. We see some reproductions, some gallery shots, and there are short interviews with Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark saying why they think Maier is great. If you're a nonphotographer you'll just have to take their word for it.  

"But why are they so great?" Tab asked me afterwards. I wasn't sure what to tell her. They're great because Joel Meyerowitz said so? Because they're raw and real and incredibly tender? Or because they were taken by an unknown nanny?

"We'll have to wait for the sequel," I said.


Martin said...

I'm sure it's a great film, and I'm looking forward to seeing it, but I suspect Vivian wasn't actually found. By this, I mean, I want to see her as she was at the end of her life. She lived to 83, but all the photos of her are time capsules, circa the 50s and 60s. She was an avid self portraiture, so why no photos of herself in later life?

That's John's next task.

Stan B. said...

The film was revelatory in that it did fill in quite a few missing pieces, yet still served to enhance her legend as many of the essential mysteries remain intact. It'll be interesting to see if, given time, she ever gets her proper due sans the asterisks from the art world proper.

While many are quick to acclaim both her talent and prodigious output (despite being a P/T artist), the question that can't be emphasized enough is that despite not having adequate prints (more like none really) to assess the progress of her work, how was she ever able to develop and progress? Mind boggling!

Unknown said...

she knew what a decent print looked like. she sent prints back for redo. she studied the work of others, and in those days there were a lot of good printers. serious photography was in B&W. there were much better papers then as well from Kodak, Agfa, Ilford, Dupont.. dozens of silver-rich papers that yielded beautiful tones, like AZO, Brovira, OPAL,and Velour. she owned a Rollie, a Leica, contax, and a Zeiss Contaflex, a state of the art machine in its day. these were sophisticated devices which required a learning curve. she certainly wasn't naive. I also thing that if her work was found 25-30 years ago no one would have noticed, not like the current frenzy

Stan B. said...

It's one thing to know what (other people's) exhibition quality prints look like. It's a whole 'nother horse to make one's own to assess one's progress throughout the course of a career. I'm not just talking print quality- how did she adjust and refine her eye, her vision, if she didn't even develop her goddamn film!

Sara said...

I haven't seen the film, but all that has been going on with Maier is a hype. Hype's sell. What they also sell, unfortunately for some and perhaps very conveniently for others, is a particular notion of talent and quality work - one that turns a blind eye on the nature of the beast - the market itself and how it functions. Which is why I'm so glad to see those points touched upon (at least) here in your post.

Hernan Zenteno said...

What Stand B said have sense for me because I always thought that edition, after the experience (do photos), is the main motor of learning. And edition usually include the participation of others at some level. I didn't see the film but this kind of mysteries are part of the interest that woke up the Maier tale. Is really odd for me imagine a person that do photos and don't show them to others in her entire life. And I like several of her photos. She had and innate talent preserved in silence until, as Martin said, suddenly she left all? Or there will be more photos to discover from the 70 and 80's?
Sara, I think is not only hype. Yes, there are marketing now, art is one of the most dark markets. I never understood how it works. But in this case there are a lot of questions and good work that sustains that advertising or publicity. For one time I find it logic.

Stan B. said...

Sara- Keep in mind that Maier's legacy is fighting an upward battle against the pantheon of the established art world. Hype may draw attention, but the proof of the pudding lies in the work itself. You may not like it- fine. But it should be allowed to be judged fairly on its own merit.

Dr Gene Ray said...

Stan B,

There are 4 different Worlds
on Earth. Yours is 1 of them.
You're ignorant of 3 of them.
Such ignorance is damnable.

Jimmy Reina said...

Last month, we had a three day Vivian Maier weekend in Berkeley and San Francisco. These events revolved around another Maier collection owned by Jeffery Goldstein, which is represented in the book "Out of the Shadows".
The fire was fanned by simultaneous press releases around the New York and Los Angeles showings of Mr. Maloof's movie.

I am attracted to Vivian Maier's work, and happened to have too much time on my hands, so I attended all three events.
At each venue, Richard Cahan and Mike Williams, the book authors/editors gave a presentation, and at the San Francisco Camerawork, and Scott Nichols Gallery presentations, the master printers who have been producing the work for Mr. Goldstein spoke as well, addressing some of the technical issues of working with decades old undeveloped film.

The presentations were followed by Q&A., and the Qs mirrored the discussions we are seeing in these blogs, "Would she approve?'' "Is it art if she didn't present it herself?", etc..
Of course, someone had to ask "What aperture did she use?".

However, most of the questions were some form of "Who was Vivian Maier", and "How did she produce so much work of such quality, without anybody noticing?", and those questions remain unanswered.

Like anything else, if you are drawn to the photos of Vivian Maier, then you are drawn to them, and the "mystery woman" is just icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, the exhibit at Scott Nichols Gallery ends tomorrow, May 17th-

Bit if you happen to be in San Francisco, it is worth seeing.

PE Preston said...

The notion that the attention on Maier is a result of an orchestrated "hype" campaign by Maloof or anyone else is just wrong. After acquiring her negatives, Maloof posted a few scanned files to Flickr seeking input from others to help him understand what he was dealing with. The tidal wave of response went well beyond anything he was expecting. The film discusses this history in some detail. Maloof gives every indication that he is taking a serious and respectful approach to her legacy, whatever it may come to be. The full story is not yet written on her.

As to why she did not print, we'll never know for sure. But I suspect her vagabond nanny lifestyle was a major factor. She could shoot while she was doing her day job. But printing for herself would have required a space for developing. Having others print for her may have required more interaction in the process than she was capable of socially (again the film touches on this). Its just speculation regardless. Fortunately for those of us not looking for a reason to dislike it, her work surfaced in an era when her failure to make prints no longer prevented it from finding an audience. And its an audience that is more than happy to kick the old-school photography gatekeepers right in the balls. That will be healthy for photography in the long run.

Stan B. said...

Dr. Ray-
Truth is, I am ignorant of all, and deserving of none.

Your Humble Servant,
In This Universe- and Beyond...

F. Martín Morante said...

One thing I really would like to get my hands on (or my ears)are the cassettes she recorded. Not the movie but the audio ones.

Good movie, but a point I did not agree was on comparing Atget and Winogrand's photos being on museums to the "lack of interest" on Maier's.

But many Maiers are out there I wonder.

Sara said...

Stan B. and the universe - gosh, I did not mean to imply that there is not more to her work than hype! I am actually very very fond of her images! What I was referring to was the process, the machinery...

Stan B. said...

"...but all that has been going on with Maier is a hype."

Sara- And I'm automatically supposed to know you like her work w/o you saying as much because...

PS- Universe comments to Dr. Gene Ray.

Stan B. said...

Just caught the Maier photos on the last day at The Scott Nichols Gallery. Sadly, a good half of these photos were definitely not her best artistically or aesthetically, the others... OK. And I was really taken aback with some of the printing, a good half of 'em looked like test prints, way too heavy on the contrast with large distracting highlight areas. Don't know if the negs were lacking, or what.

Sara- Definitely part of... The Hype.

Anonymous said...

Not at all surprising. The limited collection of prints held by Mr. Goldstein is dwarfed in size and quality by the massive collection held by Mr. Maloof.