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Monthly Archives: December 2010

A friend sent me a link to a story on a newly discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, who lived and worked in Chicago as a nanny for the last half of the 20th century.  What is curious about this story is the way in which her work is being made public–a young man purchased some of her negatives at a storage locker sale in the hopes of finding images of a local area, and started scanning them, only to discover a group of powerful street portraits.  For anyone who has spent time digging through the bins at antique stores and flea markets looking for old photographs, the work of Vivian Maier is eye-popping–her work is close, focused, composed, and powerful.  I found myself when scanning her web site recalling the hints of other photographers like naming tastes in a fine wine–Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, and Diane Arbus are there, with a hint of Paul Strand.  It’s like Robert Frank without the bitterness, and Gary Winogrand without lechery (but what would Winogrand be if not a dirty old man…)

Vivian Maier 1967

Vivian Maier 1967

Of course, I’m writing this less than an hour after first watching the video link above–hardly a considered critical opinion–and I find myself with some questions about the excitement surrounding her discovery–she apparently shot 100,000 negatives in her lifetime (8,000 rolls of 6×6 film), or an average of 200 rolls a year over 50 years, or several rolls a week.  There is no question that Vivian Maier was committed to making pictures.

But the documentary I watched did not contain any mention of prints–even drugstore prints–done in her lifetime–only carefully stored negatives and exposed but undeveloped film.   As Szarkowski noted in his discussion about the unprocessed film of Winogrand at his death, the act of tripping the shutter of the camera is not quite the same as making a photograph–an artist needs to develop, print, and examine his work in order to move forward.  And there is no mention of her ever showing her work to her acquaintances in her lifetime–if art exists as a conversation between a creator and an audience, in her lifetime she never attempted to have her work viewed in this light.  And why were these negatives abandoned in a storage locker, even while she was alive?

Is Vivian Maier a great photographer, a member of the pantheon listed above, discovered after her death?  Or just another lonely soul adrift in the 20th century with a camera, shooting with enough persistence to get an occasional lucky shot, with enough awareness of the work of others to occasionally mimic their great pictures?  Given the effort required to scan film, only a fool would start at the beginning of the box and scan to the end–anybody with half a brain would put the negatives on the light table and cherry pick the images most likely to succeed as prints–so maybe we’ve already seen the handful of images that the gods of luck in photography gave her.   Susan Sontag noted that all photographs become more interesting as they age, and part of my pleasure in these images is the memories of the world of my childhood.   But I’m not sure if Maier’s work contains the seeds of greatness–a vision of the world uniquely hers,  an ability to show something no other artist has given us.

I’m pleased to read that a book of her work is being prepared–I’m sure I’ll buy it when it’s published, and put it on my self to age along with the many other photographers–and maybe in ten or twenty or thirty years it will still be there.   I hope so.  I so enjoy fine books.

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A question sometimes posed to me when I show my photographs is:  What is the project you are working on?  Perhaps the best answer I’ve heard was attributed to Bill Eggleston, who said, simply, “life”.

My “project” is slightly smaller:  I’ve been photographing in the Alaska Landscape since my first arrival here in 1987, working mostly with black and white film and large format cameras.  By the time I arrived here, the Ansel Adams wave had crested and broken, and galleries were awash in imitators, most of who were failing to find an audience, and several fellow photographers told me flat out that the natural landscape was a death trap for serious work…

8-4108 Stream and sky, Dalton Highway, July 2005

But I set out to work anyway, stunned by the landscape, the space, and the feeling that I had never seen a place like this before—that all of the National Geographic spreads on Alaska had failed completely to capture even a small fraction of the landscape here.  My own tastes ran more towards Robert Adams than towards Ansel, and I initially resolved to include human artifacts in my pictures, partly to show the damage we’ve done, and partly to try to give the landscape a sense of scale.  But the huge open spaces were both beautiful and common, absolutely true, and I pointed my camera towards them, full of both wonder and fear.   Sometimes I knew that my ambition was bigger than both my skill and the time I had, but all that mattered was the next shot.

8-1194 Cook Inlet, February, 1993

I once described my ambitions to a well known photography critic, and his first question to me was “What if you fail?”—a question that stung like a curse.    Of course I will fail—this place is far bigger than me—more than I could ever do in a lifetime.   But sometimes individual pictures succeed—sometimes groups of pictures work together—maybe I can’t do the whole thing, but sometimes I think my photographs come close to the truth, or at least a truth.

8-1367 Denali Highway, May, 1993

I once told a friend about the words of that critic—he told me “the next time you see that critic, you tell him that I think he’s a shrill old woman.”—and we laughed.   A witch’s curses have power, but a shrill old woman  just hisses in the wind.