Saturday, October 17, 2009
The Vivian Maier Photographs
The photography of Vivian Maier was recently discovered by John Maloof who purchased an archive of her photographs at an antiques auction in Chicago. Maloof has been showing examples from the archive on a blog where he reports that:
"Out of the 30-40,000 negatives I have in the collection, about 10-15,000 negatives were still in rolls, undeveloped from the 1960's-1970's. I have been successfully developing these rolls. I still have about 600 rolls yet to develop..."
Judging by the photos that Maloof has published so far on his blog, Maier was one of the very best photographers of the Twentieth Century. The photographer's skill at capturing life on the street in Chicago has been recognized widely already on line. The question now is: What will happen with the Vivian Maier archive? One of the determinants in providing an answer to that question will be the establishment of a monetary value of the collection.
In my own mind, there is no question about the world-class quality of the work, but the market for photo art is more complicated than a simple esthetic judgment. Candid street photography does not currently attract a lot of market-place interest as a genre. The classic practitioners like Cartier-Bresson have a secure place in the art's history, but later practitioners are less noticed, and there are no doubt many fine street shooters working today who, like Maier, will never make a living from their art.
The negatives and undeveloped film currently in Maloof's possession are an example of another value issue. There is a vigorous market for found photos. Collectors avidly seek anonymously produced photographs in yard sales and junk stores which are unusual because of their esthetic qualities which may include bizarreness, humor or special subject matter; often the qualities for which such photos are recognized were quite likely unintended by the anonymous photographer. Found negatives and undeveloped found negatives are a different story; at present there seems to be virtually no market for such images. A possible reason for that is that found photographic prints are one-of-a-kind items, while negatives are infinitely reproducible. Additionally, in the case of a deceased photographer, the manner of reproduction of images at a later time affects collector value. A Weston photograph printed by a Weston family member or some other esteemed darkroom technician will have added value provided partly by clear provenance.
Another wrinkle in assessing value in the case of undeveloped exposed film images, known as latent images, is that the final resultant images are the product to a large extent of serendipity. Undeveloped silver-based photographic film inevitably deteriorates over time -- the more time, the more deterioration. The rate of deterioration depends on many factors including storage conditions and film composition. Even under ideal storage conditions there will be image degradation due to the constant bombardment of the film over time by background cosmic radiation.
And then, there is the issue of the skill of the person who develops the latent images. Coaxing quality images from old stips of found film requires very specialized skills and extraordinary dedication to the challenge. Most found film when processed reveals nothing, or images of little quality or interest. People who succeed in rescuing old latent images must have a fanatical devotion to the practice of a craft in which failure is a regular, unavoidable component. It is encouraging to see that Maloof is a skilled photogapher himself, but it is not apparent at this time if he has developed the skills needed to get the best possible images from the unprocessed rolls of film in the Maier archive. Even if Maloof has acquired those skills, it must also be recognized that applying them will result in images that are a collaboration between the film developer and the deceased photographer.
Maloof's handling of his extraordinary acquisiton of the Maier archive to date is very encouraging. He has posted the images publically on his blog accompanied by comments that indicate a genuine appreciation of the importance of the photographs. I am especially pleased to see that he has chosen to display examples of the work at a size that permits on line viewers to appreciate the photographer's artistic and technical mastery. My hope would be that the next steps would be to extend those good intentions further through well mounted exhibits and publication, perhaps by one of the major players such as Taschen. As to the ultimate disposition of the archive, we will have to hope that it ends up in the hands of some institution that will honor the priorities of preservation and public access.