Vivian Maier - Overprocessed?

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

  1. I think history, biographies, letters, drug use, suicide, and the occasional chopping off of an ear or part thereof bears out that artists are different from the rest of us. Knowing what good artists do and how many of them have lived, it makes perfect sense they'd be different and seen as eccentric. That it's a somewhat common mark of artists doesn't, of course, make it a necessary ingredient.
  2. By the way, I agree with those who suggest her work is not iconic. I don't think iconic is inherently good or bad. What's often bad is when it becomes obvious someone is trying to be iconic and not succeeding. There are photographers who very naturally and genuinely capture iconic moments and/or create iconic photos, or at least a couple of them. Those are great. But photographers who capture more small, personal moments can be every bit as good.

    I tend to agree with Brad's assessment. I don't think of her work as great, though I found the documentary and the story surrounding her work interesting enough that I keep abreast of what's going on with it. The presence or absence of iconicism in her work doesn't influence my opinion of it much.
  3. A little too Post Modern of a description in my opinion, I am just glad that the negatives were found, printed and displayed.
  4. Whether Maier was bold (or not) making photographs of people, well, that's conjecture. And, in the end, without other more definite information, likely says something more about the person making that assessment.

    Speaking only for myself... When making photographs of strangers on the street, whether candid or not, for me it's more about being open, friendly, and honest in the manner in which I engage subjects. It's not about being bold at all.

    At the other end of the spectrum, people on the street are very perceptive, especially in spotting odd behavior. Being sneaky, using deceptive methods to get a photo (looking in one direction while shooting in another, pretending to fiddle with your camera while sneaking a shot, making hip shots, etc) is often detected and creates awkward situations.

    My *guess* is VM was comfortable and easy-going around people with her camera and that came across to others as non-threatening and not a big deal.
  5. PapaTango

    PapaTango Itinerant Philosopher

    I first read of this photographer some years back, also in a NYT story. The thrust of that one dealt with the finding of the 'trove' and subsequent efforts to acquire and consolidate as much of Maier's work as possible from the other auction buyers. A sturdy sampling of her images were included--and reference to an earlier version of Maloof's tribute website. A point if find interesting is that not much has been added or made available over what was there several years back. Perhaps some of the traveling exhibits and new written expositories include such increase in publicly available imagery.

    It is this factor that makes me a little suspicious of the quality of the entire body of work. There is no doubt in my mind that her 'form' and artistic peak was the 6x6cm BW exposure through a TLR. From contact sheets I will say that I believe her to be either the most lucky or fated photographer around--as she shows there almost every shot in many cases a certain keeper! Those of us who wander around the streets know that such is usually not the case, and we arrive back home with a random and blase collection of humans--fairly identical to the much hyped and seriously overrated Winogrand stuff. In case you missed that, I am not a fan. Take thousands of pictures to get a few. It's like that old chestnut goes "Sometimes even a blind squirrel finds an acorn..." In a number of ways, her work reminds me a bit of Elliot Erwitt's images.

    Maier was more than a little obsessed and compulsive about what she was out and about doing. I think her "self portraits" tell us a great deal of what we need to know about her image of herself. The rest we really don't need to have thrashed out in infinite detail.

    Works do stand for themselves, but they must also be put in public awareness. Those who circulate around arts in large cities are inherently biased in what they believe--it is product and part of the forced structure of the artisan community. NYC has laws that define where art is appropriate. Ask any street graffiti artist or ad hoc installation creator about that... :p
  6. Face it, the streets weren't exactly clogged with Rolleiflex-toting women when she was active. Who paid much, if any, attention to her among her subjects? An advantage, no?
    tholte likes this.
  7. One other feature I find interesting is that she was "just a nanny" and "yet she was a great photographer" narrative. This expresses some kind of astonishment that a normal, unrecognized person, can produce things of great interest. The fact was she was just "undiscovered" by opinion makers, whether through her own choice, or because no one was interested at the time. There is lots of great work being created today that we may never see, and most of it may well be created by "normal" people and others who do not use drugs, commit suicide, or occasionally chop off of an ear. It would also be interesting to determine whether artists in fact do suffer any more than the general population from mental illness or drug abuse. Musicians seem to be highly prone to addictive behavior, but painters and photographers? Where is the evidence? In addition the general population is full of people with all kinds of mental illnesses, hang-ups, drug abusers, extremists and general weirdos, so one might expect artists to reflect this too.
    Nick D. and tholte like this.
  8. Ever since her photos became known, I felt like there was some marketing machine at play, creating a hype and hyperbole. Indeed the "despite being a nanny" - like it's some sort of miracle that nannies can hold a camera (sure, the times were different, but it feels all a bit blown out of proportion). And while I agree her work doesn't stand on its own nor needs to, I can understand the comments that her work can stand on its own - in the sense: does it need the marketing hype? Do they need to be iconic, or can they just be representative for an era and good quality work, with being an icon?

    I enjoyed quite a number of her photos I've seen so far (unfortunately haven't had a possibility to visit any exhibition yet, I'm curious to see prints), but there is something commercial about the whole story that rubs me the wrong way. The work is good enough to find its audience, yet somehow she's being thrusted into some sort of stardom which to me doesn't add any value to her work.
    Brad_ likes this.
  9. I'll have to look again at the documentary because I never got the "despite being a nanny" take. I got the "wow, and she was a nanny." A subtle difference, perhaps, but still a difference. The documentary showed extensively how being a nanny interacted with her being a photographer and how that also shows in her work, for better or worse. It did not seem to come across to me as stating that her being a nanny was somehow at odds with her being a photographer. If anything, it showed the interrelationship. That being said, how many well-known artists are we familiar with who were nannies? So, that it's somewhat of a big deal doesn't seem all that outrageous to me.

    I take the thrust of what's being put forth as a narrative is how such a "private" person could do such "public" street work and, like Brad, I question just how private she was. I sense that more is being made of her so-called privacy than may be warranted. Keeping your negatives to yourself does not necessarily make you a private person. It may do so, however, in retrospect, when you've been made a photographic hero and are now seen as having actively kept your negs from public view. Things got twisted is all.

    As for opinion makers, I don't necessarily denigrate them. There are experts in pretty much every field who exert a lot of influence on what gets seen or known. They have studied the field, are more familiar than most with what's going on in that field, with the history of it and the trends of it. It makes sense that we'd rely on so-called "opinion makers" to establish what might gain public attention. Scientists present their work to boards and committees who often determine what "discoveries" get "discovered" by the public. There is always going to be a filtering mechanism.

    Having said that, I agree with Robin that there is excellent photography and artwork being done by people who will never be "discovered" and made famous. I make it a habit to visit local galleries and studios, when I can, to find work by "normal" people, which I often find very creative and worthwhile. I'm glad I take that initiative and pretty much understand why my taking such initiative is necessary. And it doesn't make me think less of museum curators and art critics.
    Brad_ likes this.
  10. I think part of the astonishment of general public is in the fact that today's culture is to share photos with everyone as soon as the picture is taken, and then goes a storm of likes and comments. Even if a person takes one or two decent photos, the amount of likes makes that a big deal (sometimes bigger than it really is). Compared to that, this person (Maier) has taken photos all her life, many of them are more than just decent, and the online community haven't seen a single one of them, until now. It's very much against what people are used to, and there lies the surprise factor, as well as ... the marketing factor.

    May be she was never satisfied with her work and was continuously striving to reach the level of perfection that she desired (the reason she never showed them publicly?). May be, she was worried that some curator or art critic will turn down her work and she didn't want to go through that. We may never know.

    I find her style very much in line with contemporary street photographers and nothing comes across to me as too distinct or extraordinary, but I find it a general pleasure to browse through her photos. Part of the reason may be, her photos don't make me think critically or stop at each frame. Its a relaxed journey through many well composed, structured, (perhaps a bit conservative) shots that give a sense of the city life of the time. Unlike Robert Frank (for example), she doesn't challenge or tantalize the viewers with her shots. Its more like collecting relics of life and documenting bits and pieces for her own personal record.
  11. Robin the 'just a nanny' line is addressed directly at least once in the documentary and the person who brings it up mentions it is not perceived as a high station in life. Well, ok, someone is trusting you with the care of their children which says, I think, you are held in high esteem by some. As to your point that artists are no more prone to drugs, self abuse and other problems than anyone else I disagree. Musicians for certain, actors, quite a few well known photographers and many others who may not be 'artists' but are creative people. I have thought for years that creative types often don't get along with well with most of the rest of us and often end badly. Even those who may not be successful and/or wealthy seem to have their share of troubles.

    Rick H
    Nick D. likes this.
  12. PapaTango

    PapaTango Itinerant Philosopher

    i·con·ic īˈkänik/

    1 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an icon

    2 a : widely recognized and well-established; e.g., an iconic brand name

    b : widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence
    an iconic writer; e,g,m a region's iconic wines
    So once again, we come to the place that has been beaten to subatomic particles in the past--who defines "iconic", and who propels those with "iconic" work forward?

    Many minor producers of work which appear as part of larger shows, popups, so on and so forth likely never move past that point--and a significant number of them present through self-electing means. They submit. For every one of those there are likely several dozen more people out there working their 'magic' that will never be discovered, or display through the old means and venues.

    Doubt that? An hour in the user galleries here or somewhere like 500px, deviantart, or even flickr will dispel any confusion. Even more difficulty exists when considering work that was done in another era, especially genres that had not been exhaustively probed before. After a while, a silk screen of a soup can is just a silk screen of a soup can...
    Robin Smith likes this.
  13. Same here. I found the surrounding Maloof story fascinating (but her created story not so much). From him acquiring VM's negatives, to asserting copyright to make and sell prints, to making the Vivian Maier documentary, and with that, a narrative people could get behind. And, ultimately creating a market for prints and books. The drama that has surrounded the journey over the years has been interesting as well.
    PapaTango likes this.
  14. The "despite being a nanny" I don't think is in the documentary, but it is a narrative I have read in a few online articles and magazine snippets about her. "Who would have thought this harmless women with her wards was a great photographer..." I find there are very often hidden depths in all sorts of people, "despite being a nanny, teacher, copyeditor etc. etc". I am admirer of her photographs.

    Rick: I remain skeptical. You may be right, but there are plenty of very unhappy/"strange" people in regular jobs - look around. Musicians I already stated I think are prone to stress-relieving actions such as alcoholism and drugs, but we know that opioid addiction (to name just one) is an epidemic in the US. So are artists really that special when considered as a whole? An interesting thesis for further study. I tie this in to the romantic view of the artist fostered by Hollywood that links creativity with eccentricity. I think it emanates largely from the Romantic period. Van Gogh is the prime "modern" example. Yes some are, but so are many normal people. Perhaps they are artists too, if only we could find out?
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2017
  15. It's not me guessing. It's what some of the kids in her care have said. My initial guess was more like what others have suggested, - that she wasn't really noticed, - and that was probably true much of the time. But other times, - again, according to the kids she was taking care of, she got in peoples' faces. This was decades ago, so people were probably just annoyed. Today someone is more likely to see that as threatening behavior.

    And she didn't just take pictures, she tape recorded people as well. In the tapes I heard, she was acting as if she were some sort of reporter and was asking people in a grocery store about the political issues of the day. Again, not the actions of a shy person. She wasn't exactly nice either. She asked one young (sounding) woman about her opinions on Watergate or Nixon, - something like that. The woman either didn't have an opinion or didn't want to share it. Maier basically scolded her.

    I can't remember which documentary it was, but in one of them they interviewed someone who had met her. He asked her what she did for a living and her response was that she was "a sort of spy", - paraphrasing a bit because I can't remember the exact words but that was the gist of it.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2017
  16. Well, that's a relief! :)

    Niceness, at times, can stifle passion and truth. Niceness is so . . . well . . . nice . . .
  17. That still doesn't register to me as being "bold." It's more about being comfortable with and around people. I've found most people on the street very approachable. Seems many have a story to tell if you're willing to listen.
  18. My impression, again based on what some of the kids reported, was that her approach was not as friendly as yours and that she clearly annoyed some of her subjects.

    That may not have always been the case. What is true is that the kids' stories of her aren't always the same. One child in particular (an adult now of course) has nightmarish stories of VM. At the same time, others had an enduring fondness for her. It was a couple of her former charges that tried to take care of in her old age. And it seems that she was probably a very good nanny when she was younger but over time became more eccentric and had less patience for young kids.

    Before seeing the documentaries and reading some of the stories I imagined her being like many nannies, - a gregarious and cheerful soul. I think you almost have to be in order to be a good nanny. In other words, somebody who would be comfortable with and around people. After seeing the documentaries, I got a much different impression. She struck me as an intensely private person that was more or less a loner, - an introvert. She could be the fun, cheerful nanny when needed, especially since it allowed her to pursue her hobby, but found it draining and over time was less able to keep it up. She didn't maintain friendships. As is well known, she didn't have her own family. She may have been treated like family while working for people, but those jobs eventually ended and the relationships mostly did too.

    She went a little nutty. She collected newspapers and literally filled the room of one the places she stayed with stacks of them. She got herself fired once because she lost it over some newspapers. An employer had let a neighbor use some of the newspapers they had set aside for her as drop clothes for painting. She flipped out.

    She distrusted people. She would have a thrift store she frequented hold some item for her but would refuse to give a phone number or any means of reaching her to the owners. She often gave people a fake name when asked. She made it plain when taking new jobs that she didn't want anyone going into her room, - ever.

    I don't think she was comfortable with people in a friendly way, - she was just assertive.
  19. I did want to respond to this too. I appreciate and admire your approach to street photography. As I've said, I don't think it's quite the same as VM's. I do agree that for the most part she likely came across to others as non-threatening. But it was a different era. It was before Instagram, Facebook, and face recognition software. It was before everyone was walking around with a camera that could instantly post a picture for the world to see. It was well before 1984, - which is what we're living in now in many ways.

    I'm in my 50's now and frankly back in the 60's and 70's I don't think people were bothered much by being photographed by strangers. Lots of people were probably flattered. And yeah, a nanny with a bunch of suburban kids in tow would not have been threatening to people in the heart of Chicago. I also think her camera allowed her to be sneaky in ways we might not appreciate. Having somebody look down through a waist level finder isn't quite the same as having somebody stare directly at you through a camera.

    Also, if you've spent some time trying to use a manual focus camera to get pictures of moving subjects (like people in city) you figure out some stuff. Can you think of two things commonly found on good manual focus cameras and lenses from back in the day that you rarely, if ever see today?

    Distance and DOF scales. There's a reason they were there. Manual focusing can be hard and slow.

    But, you don't need to wait for the subject to be in your viewfinder to focus. You don't have to worry that the autofocus is going to focus on the wrong thing if you're not looking through the viewfinder. A lot (not all) of the pictures she took were outdoors in broad daylight. So she could use a small aperture, know roughly how far from the camera the subject would be when she wanted to take the picture and focus accordingly. She could appear to be taking pictures of a building or bridge. She wouldn't even need to be looking through the viewfinder when the subject was in the right spot. Just press the shutter button and the Rolleiflex would quietly do its work. You can certainly do that with a modern camera, but she would have been quite adept at it.

    You're right, somebody trying that today might look pretty obvious. 40 years ago, I don't think people were that sensitive to it.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2017
  20. Just a couple of other advantages she had in terms of being sneaky that other street photographers don't. The first is that she had a bunch of kids with her, - which would be natural and assumed subjects for an adult with a camera. She probably did take many pictures of them, but it wouldn't be hard to make it look like she was photographing them while also getting pictures of other people.

    The other goes back to my focusing based on distance theory ( a reach maybe). Doing that with a TLR is not quite as awkward as with an SLR. The distance scale on the focus knob is clearly visible while your looking down at the finder. It's pretty easy to set the distance at 15 feet for example and know based on the aperture setting that you've got a margin of error of +/- so many feet.

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