Vivian Maier - Overprocessed?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by Norma Desmond, Nov 11, 2017.

  1. Has Vivian Maier's life been processed into a mere myth hardly reflecting who she actually was? Pamela Bannos, author of a new biography, thinks so. I haven't read it yet but it looks like it will shed some light on who Maier was and what agendas may have been behind the woman who seems at least in part to have been created by men who appointed themselves guardians of her history and work.

    It's interesting to think of the old saw "let the work speak for itself" in the context of Maier. Because, in her case (and this is at play to a greater or lesser extent in so many of the bodies of work that come to us), it's the presentation of the work that is often speaking as loudly as the work. It's been edited by others and surrounded by a very strong narrative that's had a great amount of influence over what "the work itself" says.

    My own opinion is that work never really speaks for itself. There's always a presentation, a context, a narrative, lighting, juxtapositions, that are both in harmony and in counterpoint with the work, affecting what it says and how it says it.

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  2. "Has Vivian Maier's life been processed into a mere myth hardly reflecting who she actually was?" Fred.

    What she was matters so little its all about her work.

    Her street work in my opinion was very good but not iconic.

    But when the men with the gold coins move in they decide what is iconic or not.. Your opinion or anyone's else's matters dote.? You/they are just a meanless noise.

    The way the world works.
  3. I think her street work was great. Not an easy thing to do but she managed quite a few very good images. I don't agree that what she was matters little, I suspect it has everything to do with her work and I think that is true of most of us. I don't know about iconic but it is something we will be able to look at for many years, a good record of how the world looked at that time. I see no one else producing anything this good today but must admit I don't keep up with talent the way I once did. As for the men who appointed themselves guardians, I guess the alternative is that it would have all been thrown away. It was found in an auction for a storage locker after she passed. What other options were there? I'm glad they did.

    Rick H.
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  4. "Curated," one of the more cringe-worthy terms I know, seems the best description of her work and persona. Maybe Bannos can make things more messy and more interesting.
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2017
  5. Options? Put some genuine effort into locating a museum or university to take and professionally/properly care for the collection. William Gedney's photographs being handled, and viewable to the public online, by Duke University comes to mind.

    Hmmm... I wonder if Chicago is big enough to have any worthy museums or universities? However, there's no money to be made simply handing the collection over.

    Needles to say, I'm very disappointed with most aspects of the VM story. Shameful, IMO.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2017
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  6. I think if you took the raw film of just about anyone you would find a huge percentage of bad shots. I personally think every Winogrand photo I've seen was a bad use of silver. So ultimately the prints you see are someone's selection out of a lot of dreck. On top of that, some, maybe most, of the most famous photojournalist and editorial photographers are known not by their selections but by the selection of their editors.

    In that perspective, the criticism that we only get to see her "good" pix as chosen by someone else is completely irrelevant.
  7. SCL


    I think history will decide the value of her work. Certainly a driven, somewhat quirky, photographer who knew her craft quite well. Personally I'm delighted with the discovery of her treasure trove of processed and unprocessed films documenting what she saw of my native city during a period of its evolution. I did attend a showing of some of her works which had been selected by a competent group of curators and printed by master printers, and must say I gained a much greater respect for her capture of life on the streets than I had by only viewing them on tv or the computer.
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  8. I agree with that. My impression of her work was initially damaged by my mindless preconception that she hadn't made the choices was somehow wrong. Once I got over that, there was quite a bit to look at and be impressed by.
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  9. Article is rather uneven, IMO, at time supporting and at others attempting to debunk the so-called Maier Myth. After all, Vivian M did indeed walk around the city (mostly Chicago) with her "charges in tow". I think her work is excellent, being diluted by the profusion of images to which we have been subjected. Look, for example, at the marked-up contact sheets of Cartier-Bresson. If all of his work were suddenly unloaded, what would the resulting reputation be?
  10. Rick, I think there were/are other alternatives. Like you, I’m glad they found her work and it didn’t get thrown out with the garbage. But Maloof, in particular, could have handled her work differently. Had he done so, it would have been presented much differently and done her work, I believe, more justice.
  11. I agree with you, Les. I hope the book, written by someone else, is better than the article. I suspect it will be.
  12. I enjoyed looking at her work. It made me smile often. The waist level view camera caught more intimate pictures, something my eye level cameras never seem to do. (make a mental note.) Her grabs of unusual going-ons were delightful as well. The fact all these shots came from an unknown with an interesting and "secret" background adds interest as well. But the photos stand on their own.
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  13. They don't stand on their own. They stand on the article, movie, or documentary movie they're presented in. They stand on the shoulders of who puts them together, what order and context they present them in. No art (or very little of it) stands on its own. All art is presented. The presentation of art ensures that art stands within a provided context and not on its own. IMO.
  14. I can't say that they stand on their own, not for me, since I've never seen them in person. I have though been to a few gallery exhibits in which the work did so very well. We generally have to view most exhibits through the eyes of the presenter and in this case there is no other way. I was left with the impression from the documentary that it would never have been done by Maier herself and Maloof had a hard time generating interest in an unknown photographer by any gallery. Certainly he could have found a place such as Duke or other institution but that's part of the learning curve for most of us and one reason why so much good art disappears .Michael Danton mentioned that editorial photographers are edited by their editors selection and that is often true. I found out though that if I only gave an editor what I wanted published, that's what got used, every time. I think most of the news photographers do exactly that. Finally, I thought the article was quite biased.

    Rick H.
  15. Keep in mind that Maloof made the documentary, so the impressions you got from it are likely ones he wanted you to get.
  16. I think it's worth remembering that almost everything that's known about Vivian Maier is the result of a carefully assembled narrative crafted by a single individual. That story, about a mysterious eccentric woman who documented everyday Chicago life from the 1950s/1960s with camera in hand, was revealed to the public in the form of a movie and book(s?). I imagine both were instrumental in driving print sales.

    Maier was a good photographer. But for me, with a handful of exceptions, there's not much there beyond nostalgia. Not that nostalgic charm is an unworthy aspect - I love looking at old photographs of large cities, especially from the first half of the 20th century. But, beyond that, there's little that stirs my imagination or draws me in for a deeper look and consideration.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 12, 2017
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  17. There's been a couple of documentaries, - one of them done by the BBC. Maloof didn't have anything to do with that one since he was working on his own at the time. The BBC didn't stand to gain anything by trying to portray her one way or another.

    In both, Maier definitely comes off as an eccentric. Maloof's portrayal of her was a little more sympathetic from what I remember. In the BBC documentary you get the impression that she becomes more than a bit nutty in her later years and downright abusive on occasion as a nanny, - again in her later years. To be fair, taking care of young kids for 4 decades takes more patience than lots of us have. She should have found a different line of work after a time, but that's easier said than done.

    The article linked to in the original post makes the case that her portrayal has been inaccurate and unfair to her. At some point I'll probably read this new biography. I think it's true that it's easy to spin the story of a person's life many different ways. Did Maloof consciously or unconsciously shape her story to inflate the value of his collection? I don't know. It's certainly possible. I've asked the question before about the ethics of releasing her photos when she actively avoided showing any of them during her life. But she kept them all these years and left no instructions that they should be destroyed. My personal belief is that she wanted the world to see them, but at the same time wouldn't have been comfortable with the attention it brought her.

    In any case, Maier's personal story definitely adds to the mystique around her work. Her photos do draw me in. I enjoy them for what they are and not just because of the photographer's story.

    I'm not an expert on curation or how to edit and show a body of work. Regardless, Maier and her photos have become more well known and widely viewed than most photographers could ever dream of. I'd call that part at least a wild success.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2017
  18. Fred I can't argue with you there, you're right we most likely saw what Maloof wanted us to see. I happened on to his documentary this morning and was reminded that two very different sides of Maier were brought out. Some of the kids she nannied (is that a word?) now consider her to have been abusive while others thought differently. Many of the parents seemed to think she was eccentric, others that she was troubled and one believed she may have been abused early in life. One thing I have noticed through the years is that very often, creative people are troubled in some way, often don't get along with much of the world and their lives end tragically. Robin Williams for example. Two things I noticed this morning was the sharpness of her images and how well they were shot and later printed. I also noticed over and over the truly interesting faces of many of her subjects. Maybe it is just being in the south but I very rarely see such interesting people here.

    Rick H.
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  19. The narrative of her "weird, and eccentric" life seems to be important to the presentation of her as a photographer. This seems endemic: the idea of artists as somehow being different from the rest of us and, indeed, eccentricity "marking out genius". There may be something in it; but not much, I suspect, so I think this is part of the marketing drive. Whether she was all these things is not terribly important, ultimately, to her place in the history of photography, but it has helped her to get inserted into that history at this point in time. I like her images and think she was important: part of it may be due to nostalgia and interest in her historical depiction of Chicago back then: but these are precisely the attributes that photography is so good at achieving and nothing to be embarrassed about. She was not being nostalgic when she took them. "Iconic" is the cringe-worthy, cliched term, not "curated", in my opinion. There are very few truly iconic images and most things that people refer to as iconic are highly debatable.
  20. I liked her photos before I had any sense that she was weird or eccentric. I did know that she never showed them to anyone while alive but I had originally thought she was very shy or lacked confidence in her work. I imagined that being a woman in that period of time might have also made it less likely that her photographic skills would be taken seriously so she may have shied away from showing her pictures to people for that reason.

    But I don't think she was shy, and in fact was probably just the opposite. I don't know how her pictures were edited but you'd have to be pretty bold to get some of the pictures she did, - assuming she used the standard lens on her Rolleiflex and the images weren't severely cropped. Some of the kids she nannied confirmed as much and said that they were regularly embarrassed by how she invaded peoples' personal space to get those shots.

    FWIW, I don't think that it's a requirement for artists to be different from the rest of us, but I can see where it could help. ;)
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2017

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