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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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