Vivian Maier: A Framing Narrative

With Maier, like Henry Darger,
it’s hard to separate the work from the story

Vivan Maier Self Portrait/Jeffrey Goldstein CollectionWhat does it take to be a successful artist? More often than not:

1. Exceptional talent
2. Obsessive production
3. Savvy promotion
4. Great luck

Vivian Maier, the “nanny photographer,” eventually checked all these boxes, even if

the last two only in death. That puts her in good company with a number of self-taught artists, including fellow Chicagoan Henry Darger. Both also checked another box that helped catapult them to fame: fabulous discovery narratives.

Darger’s story (what’s known of it) could not be more perfect for art brut purposes. A hospital janitor and extreme loner, he created bound illustrations of his own epic novel that were so large they couldn’t be opened inside his single rented room. When he finally moved into a nursing home, he reportedly told his landlord to “throw it all away.”

The rest of the story is what made Darger’s second, posthumous, career. The landlords were art photographer Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko. They indeed started to throw it all away, but quickly recognized that the room was full of more than just junk. Rather than tossing the creative hoard into a dumpster, which has been the fate of art that fell into the hands of undiscerning landlords and heirs, they spent decades promoting it. The room itself became something of a pilgrimage site for the outsider art community, though ultimately it was disassembled and a facsimile reconstructed in a corner of Intuit’s gallery.

Maier’s story goes like this: She spent her working life as a nanny, mostly in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, including a year with talk show host Phil Donahue—not exactly Darger’s solitary existence. Her excursions through the city were not secret from her employers, nor her photo taking, though its magnitude was clearly not apparent. Even when living in their homes she was private to the point of eccentricity, and at her death she was alone and mostly friendless. Neighbors from late in her life, when she was living in an apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, say they knew her as an ornery dumpster diver—in effect, one of the street people she had once photographed on her jaunts to the city’s dicier parts.

Out of nowhere?
Darger, whose latter-day neighbors also recalled him as a gruff dumpster diver, shares other story points with Maier: Both lived their adult lives in rooms in others’ homes. Both were serious hoarders. Neither had reputations as nice people to be around. And no one had a clue as to the abundance of their art. The last point is not incidental to the discovery saga; there is something thrilling about a fully realized, massive body of work suddenly appearing from what looks like nowhere.

Maier’s discovery story begins a bit more prosaically than Darger’s, with that reality TV staple, a storage locker auction. Her life’s photographic work was sold out of an unpaid storage space in 2007, two years before her 2009 death. Her goods wound up mostly divided among three collectors, none of whom knew what they were getting. The 100,000-plus exposures they found in negatives, rolls of undeveloped film, prints and transparencies changed their lives, even if it was too late to change Maier’s.

John Maloof, who owns the largest share of Maier’s work, gives a first-person account of that process in his documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier. Her life evolved from looking like a total mystery at the start to something more knowable, if still enigmatic, as Maloof and others pieced together the story.

Fortunately, unlike Darger, Maier got serious attention before her trail ran cold. There are still enough people alive who knew Maier to form the basis of a good biography, not to mention the rich narrative that Michael Williams and Richard Cahan weave around a selection of Maier’s photos in their book Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. In Maloof’s film a couple of the children she cared for even describe her photographic practices—detail one would love to know about other artists. The air of mystery that still attaches to Maier may help with marketing, but at this point it seems mostly for show.

Making of a phenomenon
The show is entertaining, though. Maloof is articulate and devoted to Maier, apparently to the point of obsession, and he seems to have made a number of sound choices in bringing the work to market. The other two early holders of the material, Jeffrey Goldstein and Ron Slattery, have also done their share in creating the Vivian Maier phenomenon—thus her good fortune of being discovered by the right people.

An interesting discovery hardly establishes greatness, however, even if it fuels interest. Maloof, Goldstein and Slattery would be just three collectors trying to get the most out of their finds if the material had not been something special, in quantity as well as quality.

Quantity is not incidental to artistic success, since it means there is work to be had at the lucky moment when a spotlight shines. Vermeer’s reputation may not have suffered from the existence of only a few dozen pictures, but gaining widespread acclaim is liable to be easier if there is lots of work to acclaim, enabling lots of potential supporters to sell it and own it. The existence of work in quantity is also not incidental to quality, with both reflecting a driving passion to create that can keep an artist cranking it out absent social support or even interest.

(Of course, there can be downsides to obsessive production. It’s gratifying to hear about interesting work finding a receptive audience, but families can end up with basements and attics packed with stuff no one will ever want. What happens then?)

The discovery tale gives collectors, dealers, curators, critics and journalists something easy to talk about, a framing story to structure the conversation. But the story doesn’t just lubricate market reception, it affects perception of the work itself, even if no one likes to admit that. Perhaps biography shouldn’t enter into the aesthetic calculus, but if context biases judgment in matters of objective calculation—and there is plenty of evidence it does—how much more influential must it be in assessing artistic merit?

The work vs. the story
This is not to take anything away from Maier’s work or to complain about the promotional godsend her biography represents. But it does recognize the difficulty of separating the work from the story, which, with its parallels to Darger, can make for an easy slide into a potted narrative: Maier the great “outsider” photographer. But is she?

Eccentric? Yes, to a surprising extent for someone entrusted with the care of children. Beyond a social isolation conducive to over-the-top volumes of picture taking, though, it’s not clear her oddity had much to do with the character of her art. And outsider as a synonym for weird really is as pointless as the label’s detractors claim it is.

What can “outsider” mean anyway with an overwhelmingly vernacular art form where self-taught is the mainstream? True professional photographers are arguably the outsiders, a tiny minority among the hundreds of millions of ordinary picture takers. Being “folk” is nothing special here; being extremely talented is.

Unlike the typical outsider saga, where purity of influence (or, more accurately, non-influence) is at a premium, the extent to which Maier absorbed lessons from great photographers is what makes her exciting, distinguishing her from the run-of-the-mill amateurs whose work never rises above purely personal interest. The vernacular photography movement values that material too, but Maier’s photographic eye puts her pictures in another league altogether, as her most fervent supporters would agree. But it’s one with more exacting standards.

Assessing greatness
Stephen Daiter, a Chicago dealer in vintage and contemporary photography, sees the influence of those great photographers, but not greatness itself. “I call her an excellent student, not a … master,” he told WTTW’s Chicago Tonight show in 2012. Making pictures that look like Lee Friedlander or Diane Arbus “is actually a very difficult technical skill.”

“As far as I can tell,” he said recently, “she didn’t go beyond that.”

Or, as Arthur Lubow wrote this year in The New York Times, “Because she photographed in so many styles, her sensibility is indistinct and a signature viewpoint is absent. Depending on which picture you are looking at, she could be Weegee, Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Bruce Davidson, Andre Kertesz—even Garry Winogrand.”

Daiter doesn’t deny Maier’s talent, and he’s seen a number of excellent individual pictures.
“It’s a great story,” he said. “But on the other hand, there are a number of other photographers who had at least as good a production as Vivian did in the same period” and yet remain mostly unknown (and, not coincidentally, without a similarly fascinating history). And, he points out, “A lot of photographers who have become famous are no better than very good photographers.”

The consistent and signature look that he views as typical of the greatest photographers is important to Daiter’s assessment. “I’m not saying it’s not there. I have not seen it. That’s the difference between a very good and a great photographer. You want something there that makes you say that this is a Vivian Maier picture.”

Maier herself did not even see most of the pictures she took, which existed only as negatives or, in many cases, on unprocessed film, and that had to affect the development of her style. The fact that most of the Maier pictures we are seeing now were not printed by her or under her editing also troubles Daiter, who noted that he rarely deals in posthumous prints at his Stephen Daiter Gallery.

Daiter associate Paul Berlanga, who handles some of Maier’s work via Berlanga Fine Art & Photographs, has a different view.

“Vivian Maier’s work is unmistakable,” he says. “She has her own eye … a directness, honesty, unerringness, a willingness to move into someone’s private and personal space, shoot a picture and move on.”

He notes that “she really did nail it almost every time,” attributing to Maier “an unparalleled intimacy of Diane Arbus intensity.”

An achievement by any measure
Pamela Bannos, an artist and lecturer at Northwestern University who has closely examined Maier’s work in an effort to place and date it, told Chicago Tonight that Maier was most likely influenced by photography on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when she was still living there. But she believes her style was mostly formed before she could have been familiar with at least some of the artists Daiter and Lubow name. If that’s correct, and even if Maier was not fully the equal of, say, Diane Arbus, an amateur photographer making pictures that so eloquently resonate with the top photographers of her time is still an achievement that few of the millions of self-taught shooters can boast of, or most pros, for that matter.

Either way, if the main debate is about quality, that’s a refreshing break from fretting over how she should be labeled or how her ethnic heritage determined the work’s character. And it’s a better topic than any supposed mystery. Readers of this publication should not find it shocking that important art was produced in isolation from audiences, markets, galleries or any apparatus of public consumption. That she was a nanny is no more shocking than Darger being a janitor or Bill Traylor a farm laborer. Yes, there is a question of why Maier did not connect with an art world of which she was plainly aware, but we all have our reasons.

As one of her former charges commented in Finding Vivian Maier: “She got the life she wanted.”

And would she have wanted the attention she’s getting?

Maloof says in the movie: “I feel a little guilty exposing the work of someone who didn’t want to be exposed.”

Obviously he’s over that, and not unreasonably. At some point it no longer really matters what she wanted, as it no longer did for Darger once he told the Lerners to “throw it all away.” The work in both cases survived to have a life of its own, and in the case of all real art, the objects of creativity long survive the intentions, not to mention the life stories, of the creators.

This article originally appeared in The Outsider, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Shortly after publication of this piece, the Maier story took another twist, via a legal challenge filed on behalf of a purported heir. Part of the story, of course, is that Maier died without close family, leading to her work being dispersed among strangers. There are cousins, however, and John Maloof in fact made arrangements with one of them to gain copyright to the work. The litigation demonstrates there are those who believe a deal with one cousin is not sufficient to sort out the rights.

Beyond legal questions concerning estates and ownership of film and negatives, the bigger complication is that the prints the public is seeing are nearly all reproductions made by the current possessors of those negatives and film, not ones that Maier made herself and left behind. That introduces the extremely thorny question of copyright.

Under modern copyright law, ownership of a physical object does not necessarily give the owner the right to reproduce it. That means that while Maloof, Goldstein and Slattery might be able to demonstrate legitimate title to the film and negatives, there is different level of ownership and proof required to show they have the right to make and sell prints from them. This complication could result in Maier’s work — mostly visible through those recent reproductions — being withdrawn from circulation until copyright is clearly established. That would be a loss for the public and potentially for Maier’s nascent artistic reputation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *