Archive for the Vivian Maier Category

The History of Creativity Part II or The Danger of the Ad Lib

Posted in Art, Autobiographical, Harry Callahan, Photography, Vivian Maier on December 2, 2011 by smpiv

Life is scripted.

No really.

Well, not really.

It’s confusing.

Just before Thanksgiving Min and I went into DC.  For Min it was a return visit to the Building Museum and the Lego exhibit.  For me it was my umpteenth visit to the West Wing of the National Gallery and in particular for the” Harry Callahan at 100” exhibit.   He didn’t make it to 100 but his birthday did.

Except for major pieces of his that were shown in group shows I hadn’t seen an exhibit of just his work, so there were some surprises, mostly good, but like most photographers, at least, the collection went a little thin around the edges.  His multiple exposures were less than interesting and his “twigs” in the snow images that he is very well known for were dated.

His images of his wife make up for the lesser work. Like Stieglitz with Georgia O’Keefe he transcended his love and admiration for his partner well beyond the pale.  The images of his wife Eleanor are touching, beautiful, and poetic.  He seems to use her visage to occupy the cold and gray of his surroundings with warmth and charm.  She may have been a harridan in life, but that would be unknown here.  She is a siren; a sylph; a nymph—she is female beauty and danger wrapped in one.

Also curious was the size of most of these prints.  Most of the early work was very small in scale, not much beyond a 5×7 and, most, smaller than that.  There is preciousness to many of the images.  The size of the images are, seemingly, as brief as the shutter speed.

Hopefully I will be able to go back, because my first visit to any show is a fairly quick walk through to let the images wash over me and then to go back to really soak myself in the pictures that initially caught my eye and to appreciate others that I at first dismissed.

Callahan’s trajectory of photographic success was a typical one.  For him it was an early meeting with a giant of the day (Ansel Adams) that led to his moving forward seriously with his own work.  Beyond that it was a progression of teaching and showing that culminated in a well respected career as a photographer that was followed by and written about by many.  No surprises—well scripted.

After arriving back from our Thanksgiving trip to DC I was greeted by my always helpful neighbor with my mail and several UPS boxes.  In one was a book I had been looking forward to for some time.  It was as monograph with the work of Vivian Maier—“Vivian Maier, Street Photographer”.  A woman who had worked in utter obscurity for decades leaving behind over 100,000 negatives (the same as Callahan) that were plucked from the darkness at the eleventh hour at an auction house that had earlier acquired the contents of her unpaid storage unit.  She died soon thereafter in her nineties never having met the man who purchased her negatives and would make her famous.

As mentioned Callahan’s arc was a comfortably recognizable one.  Maier’s is not.

As I paged through the volume I felt I was looking through a history book on street photography.  Every major name in the opus was represented by an image in this book.  Her images are as good if not better at every turn.  The difficulty comes in the realization that other than amassing an amazing number of negatives Maier left nothing behind that could speak to her influences.  Were these conscious decisions to emulate images she was familiar with or something more toward the “idiot savant” end of the spectrum?

As far as I know there are no prints from her negatives done by Maier that would hint at how she would have shown them.  Would she have preferred precious—not much larger than her 2-1/4 inch negatives or the approximately 9×9 images in the book?  Does it matter?

One thing is for sure her talent will always be on the fence.  Her talent will always be advocated by others. Her voice will never be lent.  The art world doesn’t like surprises, particularly ones that have no other voice than the image.  She was apparently a crusty old nanny with few vices other than photography.  Vivian went off script.

For me personally, the work is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter who her influences were or how she was influenced.   The difficulty now is in the editing of her work by others.  I tend to think that many of the images were pulled consciously or not because they did tingle with familiarity.

Ansel Adams long ago compared the making of a photographic print to the playing of music and the negative being the score.  In fact anyone with reasonable credentials can print from Adam’s negatives.  With Maier you have the added facet of editing the score yourself—unlike Adams she left behind no primer.

Her story is a wonderful one.  It is a story that will resonate for some time and she will be a talent that will rise and fall with the seasons—in and out of fashion, but never classic.

If only she had stuck to the script.