The story – John Maloof attending an auction, successfully bid on a large chest of old negatives. When he viewed the images he was struck by their quality. The Authoress however seemed to be a relative unknown. John purchased the remainder of the auction lot from other bidders and slowly began to research the person Vivian Maier. There are over 150 000 negatives. His inquiries took fruit after he discovered her death notice in the paper. She had worked as a nanny for most of her life, unmarried and childless, she had died alone.
He showed a selection of images to photographic museums, who showed little interest. However the general public were fascinated by both the images and the story. First on Flikr and then in exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, London and Europe her photographs received wide public acknowledgement. Her images of strangers – taken in the street – are intimate compelling and unique. As John spoke to the families who had hired and lived with Vivian he discovered an idiosyncratic woman, a hoarder and a recluse. She was afraid that she was being spied on. It seemed that she had suffered some form of mental illness, dying seemingly alone and friendless. John was determined to put this woman on the artistic map and has produced an 80 minute documentary that recently aired on the ABC.
Critique (Acknowledgement Wikipedia)
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, William Meyers notes that because Maier used a medium-format Rolleiflex, rather than a 35mm camera, her pictures have more detail than those of most street photographers. He writes that her work brings to mind the photographs of Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, and Weegee, as well as Robert Frank. He also notes that there are a high number of self-portraits in her work, “in many ingenious permutations, as if she were checking on her own identity or interpolating herself into the environment. A shadowy character, she often photographed her own shadow, possibly as a way of being there and simultaneously not quite there.”
Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times, has drawn attention to how Maier’s photographs are reminiscent of many famous 20th century photographers, and yet have an aesthetic of their own. She writes that Maier’s work “may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic 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.”
Questions (In my mind)
- Is it the quality of the work or the reputation of the artist that makes good art? Why were the art museums reticent at first to acknowledge her work? Was she talented, or was it John Maloof that made her great?
- Why are the pictures so intimate, and yet most of her acquaintances find her so odd? Was she good with people or bad with them? Was it her unorthodox approach that drew people out?
- Why do some of the most creative people suffer from mental illness?
- Would she have done better if she had received recognition in her lifetime? Is this what she would have wanted? How would she have done it?
- Does ownership of the negatives constitute ownership of copyright? This is the key question in the legal challenge. Prints made from the negatives currently retail for around US$3000. The original chest of negatives was bought for only US$350.