Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The VM Juggernaut

Not Vivian Maier
The NY Times Lens Blog today features the latest developments in the Vivian Maier found photo saga.  Along with a few pictures there is an announcement of a forthcoming biography, and a segment of "This American Life" devoted to Ms. Maier's life.

I wrote here about the Vivian Maier phenomenon soon after it became known.  I liked her work then and still do, but I have even more reservations now about the process that it has been subjected to.  It seems to me that the subject has shifted inexorably  from photography as art to photography as commodity.

Vivian Maier was a private person who enjoyed the process of photography, and she made some good photographs along the way. There is no way now to really know what she would have thought about the exploitation of the unfinished work she left behind.  It may be that the biggest lesson to learn from all of it is to be sure to burn your negatives before you die.


Vitaly said...

Should we prefer that Paul Gauguin had torched his canvases, or that Emily Dickenson had set all her poetry alight?

By grace and by accident, the work of a few lonely geniuses in art, literature, and science, obscure in their own time, have managed to survive their authors.

Yes, such work can then take on its own life, perhaps greatly removed from any original intent. And yes, some may be so crass to seek nothing but profit and gain from its exploitation.

But for others, such work can lead to inspiration, awe, and a passion for further discovery.

I am grateful to see the emergence of Ms. Maier's photographs, it is wonderful stuff. And I am also happy to learn that others are making a serious effort to discover more about her life.

Anyway, as for my own collection of pathetic negatives, I have no doubt they will be promptly destroyed upon my demise, as they well deserve, and as is the ordinary fate of such things...

Mike said...

I think you have to take some care in making comparisons between art forms. Gauguin's paintings were fully realized expressions of his vision and his technical evolution as a painter. Dickenson's work likewise was polished to perfection.

We can see enough of Vivian Maier's skills in her remaining prints to know that she was a talented photographer. However, to take her unprocessed negatives and turn them into prints and represent them as her work is something of a stretch.

Photography is unique in its emphasis on perception and the instantaneous capturing of a moment in time. However, there is a good deal of decision making which comes before and after the act of pressing the shutter. Most photographers, and particularly those who work the streets, take dozens or even hundreds of shots of any given theme, and then choose only those few to show which express something they want to communicate.

There are also many choices of technique which go into those final images, some before the shutter click and some after. I'm thinking here of film choices, lighting preferences, compositional and tonal adjustments and the creation of relationships and context through related series of images.

It is true that some photographic artists have left much of the technical and other choices to assistants and editors -- Cartier Bresson and Wilfred Thesiger spring to mind. However, since the artists were alive and able to communicate in a partnership with their collaborators, their work retained integrity. Vivian Maier doesn't get that opportunity.

If someone comes across a Gauguin sketch and turns it into a painting in the style of Gauguin, the results could conceivably be quite admirable. However, the result is not a Gauguin. I think the same criteria needs to apply to the art of the photographer. The fellow who now has the Maier collection has been open enough about the processing of the images, but the hype surrounding the commercialization is blurring the distinctions, I think.

Vitaly said...

In fact the differences are not so great as you imagine.

Precious little of the art we experience is ever in its original form, coming directly to us from the hand of the original author.

Paintings are subject to the whims of their curators, which effect everything from restoratoin, framing, and presentation, to the written programs and juxtapositions imposed by gallery showings. Otherwise, we should all have to make a pilgrimmage to Tahiti to see the work of Gauguin in the exact light it was created.

As for literature, it is certainly rare to come upon any manuscript in its original hand on the original paper, as put to the page by its original author. Rather, we are usually presented with another version, interpreted through intermediaries, those editors, typesetters, book designers, and marketing geniuses who ultimately decide the how and the what whenever something is published.

Do I also need to mention those long-dead composers, whose music on paper must somehow find its way into the music for our ears -- in a way that may or may not really represent the original thoughts of its author?

Which brings us to photography. Ansel Adams himself likened the negative to a composition, and to the fine print as its performance. That Adams was a master printer, and that the fine print was itself an integral part of his art, did not prevent him from being keenly interested in the idea that others might make different interpretations of his negatives after he died. He was especially intrigued by the idea that future materials and processes could be used in printing his negatives in new and better ways.

And so we continue to have those damn Ansel Adams calendars, year after year...

But the fact that Adams was a master printer is actually an anomaly. Yes, we do have some fine prints from guys like Weston and Adams. But it is the exception and not the rule. Outside of group f/64, most photographers don't/didn't print.

And the dead can not collaborate. So while we have some more fine prints of original negatives produced by the direct descendants of Weston and Imogen Cunningham, for example, these too are independent interpretations. Perhaps not better than the original, perhaps not worse than prints made by other technicians. But there they are and they do offer existence to the original image.

And that is the vast body of great photojournalism in the middle 20th century: dead photographers, mostly never developed much less ever printed themselves in their own lives, we know them primarily -- if at all -- from the research and interpretation of others.

As for Vivian Maier, well, I do share your sense of creepiness about some of the opportunism and handling of her archive. The motives of Mr. Maloof and Mr. Goldstein in particular do not seem especially pure or clear. And their technical aptitude in handling her material leaves quite a lot to be desired.

But as her story circulates and her photographs gain broader attention, I am hopeful that a greater expertise and more professional rigor will prevail, and that her orphaned work will someday come to find a more proper home.

And then we will finally be able to buy those Vivian Maier notecards and calendars, year after year...

Mike said...

It seems like we are not far apart on the main point I was trying to make in the original post. As for the rest, you bring up some good points worth exploring. I'm going to forego the opportunity right now because I've got a bit too much on my plate, but I really appreciate your thoughtful responses.