Why Is The Photography Of Vivian Maier So Popular?

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Alex Kilbee

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.

From Wikipedia:

‘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, and her work does offer a new view of the city that we already know through the eyes of Frank and Winogrand but with a different take.

What do you think? If nothing else, it makes us think about what constitutes a great photographer, and what prompts us to laud someone.

Personally, whilst I enjoy her work, I think the market is most responsible for her current rather extreme fame, rather than her photography per se.