The Vivian Maier Phenomenon

In case you haven’t heard of Vivian Maier, she was a nanny who also did a significant amount of street photography in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily in Chicago and New York.  Maier shot well over 100,000 images of people and places she encountered on the streets, and as far as anyone can determine, never really showed them to anyone.  Some of her work can be seen in a couple of places, along with what is known of her story. One site is a blog run by the discoverer of Maier’s work, John Maloof, who owns the majority of her photography.  A second site is operated by Jeffrey Goldstein, who holds the balance of her work.

The discovery and publication of Maier’s work has triggered a multi-faceted discussion on the internet: Who was this woman and why was she so passionate about street photography?  What was her life like? What was she like? What did she know about photography? Why did she not try to show her work while she was alive? How good is her work compared to other contemporary street photographers? Compared to all street photographers?  Why is the discovery of her work significant, or is it?

Some writers broaden the discussion: What is the point of street photography? How is her photography connected to her life? Is her work important? Is her work good art? Is it art at all? What makes it art or not? What are the differences, ultimately, between amateurs and artists?

Of course, it is far too early to determine where Maier fits into the world of American street photography, or American photography in general, but indications are that she is beginning to be considered important and, according to David W. Dunlap, writing for the Lens blog of the New York Times, is being compared to contemporary masters. If you want to know why, Dunlap advises that you take the time to look at her pictures, and suggests that you will then know why.

And Kevin Moloney, for one, is convinced that Maier’s work is definitely art: “I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity….Hers is the work of an artist who worked only for her own satisfaction. The opinion of friends, relatives, editors or critics was never sought.”

While I agree that Maier’s photography is art, and that some of it is quite remarkable, this story has some other interesting implications. Maier, the photographer, was discovered because John Maloof bought her work in an auction a few years ago. Since then, thanks to Maloof, the world has learned of Ms. Maier. Before it is over, she may become one of the most famous street photographers ever, simply because of the way her work is now being marketed. Works are released slowly on the web; a one-woman show has been curated and mounted; a documentary film is being financed through internet contributions. The story has enough mystery to be continually intriguing. Her work is obviously worth looking at. All the elements are here. What she chose not to do during her life, others are now doing for her and to great effect. As Kevin Moloney observes, “What is accepted as art and who is defined as an artist is as much about marketing our narratives as it is about anything else.”

It causes one to wonder how many other Vivian Maiers there are out there with their negatives and prints filed in storage boxes, their canvases stacked in attics, their sculptures covered in garages. How many are there who don’t have the know-how to market themselves, or don’t have the interest. How many are there who make art only to please themselves. One wonders what other great art we are missing…

Date: Sunday, 16. January 2011 23:17
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    I’m so glad you posted this. The Vivian Maier story generates many questions about art, but so many more beyond it. I’m absolutely intrigued by its implications, but on cloudy nights I find myself vascillating between the value of her discovery and the joy of her anonymity.

    I would take your concluding remarks more to heart if I knew Ms. Maier ever attempted to market her work. But if she didn’t, this story is so much more intimate, and by extension, loving. And with that, I will not only see the images, I will look through them, for a glimpse of her, alone, staring back at me.

    What do you call something that makes you feel that?

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