Why Is The Photography Of Vivian Maier So Popular?

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Vivian Maier is an exceptionally popular photographer, but is this popularity because she is a good photographer or because of the myth surrounding her? Or maybe it is because ‘the market’ has been managed so well that there is a kind of spiral of complicity?

Alex Kilbee, who runs The Photographic Eye YouTube channel posted an interesting analysis of the situation, some of which won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Amongst the points that he makes are that Maier was the first (and maybe the last) classical era photographer discovered by the digital generation. She has left so many self portraits – and the ‘selfie generation’ unearthed her via Flickr. hard to disagree with that.

As far as the facts are concerned, Wikipedia says this:

‘In 2007, two years before she died, Maier failed to keep up payments on storage space she had rented on Chicago’s North Side. As a result, her negatives, prints, audio recordings, and 8 mm film were auctioned. Three photo collectors bought parts of her work: John Maloof, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow. Maier’s photographs were first published on the internet in July 2008 by Slattery, but the work received little response.

Maloof had bought the largest part of Maier’s work, about 30,000 negatives, because he was working on a book about the history of the Chicago neighbourhood of Portage Park. Maloof later bought more of Maier’s photographs from another buyer at the same auction. Maloof discovered Maier’s name in his boxes but was unable to discover anything about her until a Google search led him to Maier’s death notice in the Chicago Tribune in April 2009. In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on Flickr; they became a viral phenomenon, with thousands of people expressing interest.

In early 2010, Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a portion of the Maier collection from Prow, one of the original buyers. Since Goldstein’s original purchase, his collection has grown to include 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, 30 home movies, and numerous slides. In December 2014, Goldstein sold his collection of B&W negatives to Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto. Maloof, who runs the Maloof Collection, now owns around 90% of Maier’s total output, including 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, and ephemera including cameras and paperwork, which he claims represents roughly 90 percent of her known work’.

Maier was taking photographs for herself, hoarded them and kept hundreds of rolls of undeveloped pictures. She shot black and white and colour, movies and took tape recordings. The relatively few images she did print showed detail and often dispassionate composition, rather than drama and emotion. Her work offers a new view of the city that we already know through the eyes of Frank and Winogrand but with a different take.

Whilst commercially popular, art institutions are still wary of collecting her work as so little of it was printed by her, and thus modern printing interpretations are a subject of conjecture.

Here is Alex Kilbee’s take on Vivian’s popularity.

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Addendum: February 6th, 2022.

I have just read Ann Mark’s fascinating book ‘Vivian Maier Developed‘. This sets out a strong case that Vivian should be seen as one of the ‘greats’. Her dysfunctional family history, outspoken attraction to the social progressive causes of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, progressive and compulsive mental (hoarding) disorder, and a complex private-public persona all add to the power of her photography. Here is an extract from her book, in Appendix B: The Legacy, pgs. 282-283

Even though she is one of the most talked-about photographers of the twentieth century, major institutions have yet to bring Vivian Maier’s work into their permanent collections, and her oeuvre has not been formally considered in the context of the masters of street photography. No one knows she will ultimately participate in the canons of photographic history. Alternatively, her enduring value could be as a documentarian whose broad range of images Serves as a cultural chronicle of the time in which she worked. She may even persevere as an inspirational figure who overcame formidable obstacles to create a life in which she could pursue her passions and advocate for society’s underdogs. The conversation about Vivian Maier’s legacy is just beginning. 

Historic Photographer

There is broad agreement among experts that Vivian was a highly skilled photographer, yet inclusion in the annals of history is an elusive achievement that can require categorization and advancement of the medium. Arthur Lubow of the New York Times wrote that it is nearly impossible to apply these criteria to Vivian because she “photographed in so many styles, her sensibility is indistinct, and a signature viewpoint is absent. Depending on which picture you are looking she could be Weegee, Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Bruce Davidson, André

Kertész-even Garry Winogrand.” Others dispute this conclusion, including the York Times’ Roberta Smith, who claims that Maier’s photographs “may add to the history of20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopaedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition, and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.”

To date, no one has characterized and placed Vivian’s work into context better than master street photographer Meyerowitz, who was one of the first experts to examine her pictures: ‘It looks like there is an authentic eye, real savvy about human nature, photography and the street, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen that often. Vivian’s work instantly has those qualities of human understanding and warmth and playful ness.” He further describes the photographs as authoritative and made in the moment and that Vivian “has it all, sense of humor, of poignancy, a sense of the tragic, and sense of timing.” Meyerowitz explains that canon is established with photographers like Robert Frank, Lisette Model, and Walker Evans and then “someone comes in there is always the sense that they are a secondary Figure, but I don’t feel her as secondary. When l look at Vivian’s pictures I always feel a genuine intelligence at work there, something primary, not secondary.” He does not view the work as derivative, and any similarities to that of others can be attributed to the common subject matter and overriding humanism of the 1950s and ’60s: “You can make photos without any influence, except the influence of your culture at that time.”

Marks’ book certainly gave me a new appreciation of Vivian’s breadth of photographic order, and her family and mental health history.

What do you think? If nothing else, this should make us all think about what constitutes a great photographer, and what prompts us to laud someone?

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MARKS, Ann. 2021. Vivian Maier Developed. New York: Atria Books.

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