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The Fall and Rise of Vivian Maier:


There has been a perennial question as to whether a photographer is considered successful, or more accurately talented, if their work is not seen, recognized and critiqued. 

In much like the question as to whether a photograph is really taken unless it is printed (and that's not the focus here), the issue of debate has been that if one takes photograph, if no-one apart from the photographer sees their work, are they 'successful' as a photographer? 

Even more intriguing, why would someone take images and not even process the film?  Would it be just a matter of economics, or was there an imperative concentrated on the actual act of capturing of the image?  Garry Winogrand, while successful, left behind, unpublished, 300,000 images and more than 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film.

This question has taken on more significance since the discovery of the works of Vivian Maier, who was a prolific photographer throughout her adult life, but who made very little attempt to share the images she took with the world. Yet, since her death, and her images have been brought to the world by others, she and her work have been the focus of great discussion and debate.

While some have said that her material should be left unpublished and accused those who have done so as disrespecting her and ruthlessly leveraging her work for personal gain, the counter-argument has been that her images are of significance as art and expressions of the zeitgeist in which they were taken.

I first encountered Maier back in 2015 when I saw the film 'Finding Vivian Maier', by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel on how they, and others, found her photographic materials when bidding for the contents of disused storage lockers. She had not kept up the payments and they were auctioned off.

These men, and others, often bid blind on contents that might hold interest or return, and each had found significant numbers (hundreds of thousands) of materials in the form of prints , negatives and even unprocessed film in boxes and trunks, along with cameras and a range of disparate bric-a-brac and personal items - including uncashed government cheques and vast numbers of newspapers.

While likely some ditched the images if they were not into photography, intrigued by the quality of the images they saw, these two and a few others started to explore their finds, and consolidate them - by buying up the unwanted items that other bidders had won.

The film, and follow-up books, chart the evolution and consolidation of these huge caches of material and the process of turning them into displays, publications and prints to share with the world. That attracted a lot of controversy as some considered the publication of her works as a violation of her personal life for profit, whereas the counter argument went that her work was of great artistic and social value and deserved to be recognized and shared as such.

Part of the controversy lay with the fact that Maier was (unknown to them) still alive at the time this began, but died within weeks of the initial purchases. It was necessary to track down any relatives who might have rights over the materials, a process hugely complicated by her family's incredible disfunction and chequered relationships, with many name changes and shifts of country.

Eventually, Maloof became the principle driver, and shared a few images on line to the delight and immediate praise of those who saw them. It was clear there was merit in her work, but getting the enormous reservoir of material processed, printed and presented was outside the ability of one or two people. Maloof took some images to galleries and museums, but was turned away as she had no status.

So, he mounted his own exhibitions, starting in Chicago (where Mayer mostly resided) where it turned out to be of incredible interest and acclaim from the public. This encouraged him to process and share more material and it continued to yield enormous quantities of consistently high-quality images of life predominantly from the 1950's to the 1970's.

Almost as intriguing was the mystery behind the woman. Who was she? What did she do? Why were these images not presented and recognized at the time? As investigations progressed, the story of a complex and flawed personality, a complicated and dysfunctional family life, and a career as a nanny gave a whole new dimension and level of intrigue to the story.

More recently, her work has been applauded by recognized photographers, critics, museums and galleries and the has very recently culminated in her being inducted posthumously into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. Photography Hall of Fame 

Yet, simmering behind the scenes, continues the debate as to whether she would have been happy with this exposure and fame, and legal issues as to who has an interest in the estate have consumed researchers, lawyers and courts until recently. Meanwhile social commentators and academics have debated the ethics of publishing her work at all.

Her work is, to me, outstanding for its sheer volume and its consistency - she averaged over a roll of film per day through over three decades and had an amazing hit rate of great negatives. Starting with a Kodak Box Camera, and progressing up to a Rolleiflex camera, and later 35mm format as well, she produced still images in negative and transparency formats, in black and white, and colour and in different negative formats - but predominantly square. She also produced 8 and 16mm videos.

She appears to have rarely cropped her images and they rarely would have needed to be as their composition was consistently bang-on for exposure, and even getting horizontals and verticals right within the bounds of the lenses and subjects she shot.  She had a great nose for a subject: when to capture it, and from what angle. For someone shooting predominantly street images, this was significant.

Personally, she was a complex and secretive person. Working as a nanny, in the US - early on in NY but predominantly Chicago - she took her camera everywhere, often dragging the children she minded along to situations and places that would have raised more than a few eyebrow from parents or social agencies. She was intensely private about her personal life, but not afraid to engage with others to explore their situations or to get opinions on current events. While her subjects echo a range of genres from families to flops via macabre trash, or somehow getting to shoot film  stars up close on set. She was not afraid to push to get her shots, yet she left  thousands of rolls of film unprocessed and many more unprinted.

With my own interest in the history of photography, I have been exploring this unique and complex person through the films and books charting her life, and this Christmas will invest in the most comprehensive publication of her work: Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found, by John Maloof.

I hope that one day an exhibition of her work will make it to NZ so I can see more of these images. She shot in a genre that I have not engaged with in any great depth, but can appreciate and respect, and I am hugely impressed by the breadth and depth of her work.

Would she be comfortable with all this exposure? Opinions from those who knew her vary to a degree, but the consensus is that she might have been pleased to see the recognition of her work, but not of the exposure of herself personally.

As she grew older, she became more reclusive and harder to engage with, yet some of the children she had minded, and who loved her - now grown, helped to support her until her death in 2009. While she died in diminished circumstances, alone and in a depressed state; posthumously, she has achieved major recognition and risen to great heights in the world of artistical photography. That is one heck of a legacy...


cheers, TREVOR

"The Amount of Misery expands to fill the space available"
"All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
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