Thursday, 9 October 2014

Inventing Vivien Maier

While completing the research point on Vivien Maier I was struck by the similarity of her position and that of Atget. Both produced huge quantities of work and both have had their work interpreted/reinterpreted later by people with agendas of their own – in Atget’s case the surrealists and subsequently the institutions trying to actively develop a photographic canon, and in Maier’s case a small group of people trying to capitalise on the value of a previously unknown hoard of street photos.

I’m not saying that this reflects on the quality of the individual photographs – there are some real gems on the Vivien Maier website – but it is an inescapable fact that we have very little knowledge of how Maier would have displayed these images. On the basis of even the small selection available on the site she seems, like Atget, to have been quite promiscuous in her choice of subject and this in itself means that we are not judging her work alone – we are judging the work of the curators as well. What is it they are trying to achieve? How do we fit her in to the canon on this basis – until recently she can hardly have been influential – modern street photography developed in her absence, so what are we to make of claims such as “ of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century.”? Even the idea that it is “the Official website of Vivien Maier” website is slightly ridiculous – it is, if course, the Maloof Collection website. It is none the worse for that, but surely it must impact on our reading of greatness.

A bit of web research reveals that all this, and much more is discussed much more eloquently and in much greater detail by Abigail Solomon-Godeau here and Malcolm Jones here. For the meantime I think it is always wise to be aware of hype. A couple of hundred images carefully selected from an archive in excess of 100,000 is a pretty small sample from which to rush to judgement – one way or the other.

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