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Tag Archives: Diane Arbus

One of the joys of collecting photo books (which I have been doing for about 30 years)  is that new books can be placed side by side with other books in the collection—a pleasure especially when the new book proves to be “better” than the previous ones.  What makes one book “better” is a judgment based on personal tastes—but , in general, printing quality, the selection and ordering of the photographs, and (occasionally) a well written essay can all add to the experience of a new book.

Unfortunately, I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, far from a good bookstore (by which I mean something on the caliber of the Strand in New York, or Powell’s in Portland—both stores I love to browse in when opportunity allows)—so I mostly acquire books by purchasing them on line based on their descriptions on web site—which means that the book must be purchased before it can be seen.  But the arrival of a package with books is always a bit of an event—a first meeting, always hopeful, but sometimes disappointing.

Yesterday, I arrived home to find an package on my front stoop—it had been there for hours, so the books had chilled to the ambient twenty below—I had to bring them inside and warm them up for several hours before removing the shrink wrapping (otherwise the water from the air would condense and warp the books)—two volumes—the new “Gypsies” by Koudelka, published by Aperture, and Vivian Maier “Street Photographer” published by PowerHouse.

I have a copy of the 1975 version of Gypsies in my collection (softbound, second printing) and might have skipped purchasing the new edition had it not gotten such rave reviews from readers on the Amazon site—which it fully deserves.  The new edition has nearly twice as many pictures, and they are printed larger and with a gritty matt surface.  The energy of the book is more intense—the addition of many of the new pictures adds to my appreciation of the care with which Koudelka framed his pictures, and the love he shows for his subjects.

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, Romania, 1968

I have also been looking at a new book Sunder by Bruce Haley (who I met in China a few months ago)—this is his first book—he is not nearly as famous as Koudelka—but the images are from Romania and other countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and many of them seem to reflect a similar sensibility of the people of eastern Europe.  Koudelka’s Gypsies was shot in the 1960s, Haley’s work was made between 1994 and 2002, but both bodies of work seem to come from a much more distant past.  Koudelka clearly is working with a marginalized segment of society in the east block countries before the fall of the wall, but Haley seems to showing a broader devastation caused by a dysfunctional society.  That so many could be left so far behind seems sad beyond words.

Bruce Haley, Sunder 2011

And while I tend not to read (and especially not re-read) most essays in photographic books (Szarkowski and Robert Adams emphatically excepted), Sunder has a stunning essay by Andrei Codrescu about his life and travels in Romania.  Codrescu’s voice is familiar to me from his stories on NPR, and the essay about the “revolution” (the quotes are his) is chilling.  His voice allows us to feel the repression and fear that runs through the photographs of both Haley and Koudelka.

The Vivian Maier Street Photography book is the product of one of the most successful PR campaigns I have ever witnessed about a photographer—I first heard about her work about a year ago—and the story is amazing.  Maier worked as a nanny for most of her life (the cover photo even makes her look somewhat like Mary Poppins), who spent her free time making photographs on the streets of Chicago, leaving behind an archive of more than 100,000 negatives.

These negatives were discovered by John Maloof, who has worked to scan these images and present them in this book.  Maier died a few days before Maloof attempted to locate her, which adds an odd hook to the work—unrecognized during her lifetime, declared a genius after she dies.

Eight of the images in the book are self-portraits—a proportion Lee Friedlander would be proud of—but whether this represents a true proportion of her effort in self portraits, or an attempt by the editor to present us with a sense of Maier (I suspect the latter) is not clear.  Maier does not appear to be a happy person—perhaps a reflection of her own station in life—she never married—never had children of her own—and was (we suspect) always held responsible for the age appropriate (i.e., terrible)  behavior of the children in her charge—at a time when children were to be seen and not heard.

Vivian Maier, Street Photographer, 2011

My favorite pictures in the book are of children that may have been those in her charge (pages 14 and 15) (what is that girl—oh, no—it’s a boy with a coonskin hat—holding in his hands—it’s not a grenade (as in the Arbus image)—but what the hell is it?)  And I suspect (though of course there is no way to verify this) that the boy grew up to be a hedge fund manger—his look of distain and his carefully arranged escape route (that open car door) make it clear that he is  a lot smarter than the rest of us—born that way, of course.  And the picture opposite—like a Harry Potter scene—a girl hold a Mason Jar with—well, what is it—it obviously can’t be captured by a camera—a frog?

The book feels a little uneven to me—not all the pictures are as strong as the best images—but there are more than enough strong pictures (and details within pictures) to justify the publishing of the work.

All in all, a good evening in looking at books.

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.