Those of you who missed out on the highly-acclaimed and much-anticipated Vivian Maier show at the German Gymnasium as part of the London Street Photography Festival, fear not, for it is now travelling to the wonderful Photofusion Gallery in Brixton.
From 29 July – 16 September, Photofusion will bring together 48 black and white and colour prints from the Chicago-based nanny who in her spare time wandered the streets with her Rolleiflex, obsessively taking snapshots of life as it unfolded around her. The exhibition includes spontaneous street scenes, street portraiture and more abstract compositions reminiscent of some of the greatest photographers working in the genre, to whom her work is often compared. Through her unique style of candid street photography, Vivian Maier incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of urban America in the latter half of the last century.
All images courtesy of John Maloof ©Maloof Collection Ltd
Prior to the exhibition officially opening, it seems like a perfect opportunity to revisit this interview with Aaron Schuman and John Maloof, originally published in #11 of 1000 Words.
AS: There’s been quite a bit of coverage of Vivian Maier’s own mysterious biography, as well as of the incredible story of how you found, acquired and are in the process of archiving her work, and the discovery of this collection. But for the purposes of this interview, I’d like to focus on the photographs themselves. Firstly, why do you think Maier’s work is particularly interesting and important?
JM: I must say that, at first, I didn’t know that her work was as good as I now understand it to be. When I found Vivian’s archive, I was not a photographer, so what caught my eye were the more nostalgic images of Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 60s. Over time, I began to realise that the work was better than I’d first thought. What I now find to be so interesting and important is the fact that she was not formally trained, and yet she was ahead of her time; purely by coincidence, she was taking photographs similar to those of Diane Arbus, but she was doing so a decade earlier than Arbus.
AS: I understand that you initially bought her negatives hoping that they might serve historical purposes, but they’ve since been positioned within an “Art”, or at least, “Art Photography”, context – how did that happen? Do you think Maier was interested in photography – and understood her own photography – as “Art”?
JM: As I mentioned earlier, I originally purchased her work because it contained images of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century, and at the time I was researching and co-authoring a book about my local Chicago neighbourhood. But I do think that she was photographing as a form of art, and that she understood photography well. In fact, when she died she left behind many books by photographers, which means that she must have appreciated the work of others.
AS: Judging by what you’ve seen so far, how would you generally describe Maier as a photographer?
JM: I would describe her as one of those photographers that simply follows their own curiosities, wherever they lead. She didn’t have assignments or a specific agenda to promote; she was doing this for herself. That is the most interesting aspect about her intentions as a photographer.
AS: In the process of archiving her work, have you noticed any particular themes developing?
JM: The themes within her work changed over time. In the first few years, she was still very much an amateur, taking controlled photographs – mostly landscapes and portraits – with a Kodak Brownie box camera. She then got into street photography, primarily honing in on women, children, and the poor. After that, in the mid-1970s, she switched to colour and became more abstract, taking pictures of garbage on the curbside, racial and political graffiti, and so on.
AS: In the past, you’ve speculated that Maier may have studied under Lisette Model in the early-1950s, and might have been in touch with – or at least aware of – a number of other prominent photographers working at that time. Is there any hard evidence to support a direct connection?
JM: I did speculate that there was the possibility of a connection to Lisette Model, however it was clearly a speculation based on coincidences. I recently received the class roster of Model’s class from the New School of Social Research, and unfortunately Vivian wasn’t on there. So I can’t say for sure who her influences were. The only evidence of any direct influence on Maier is from Jeanne Bertrand, a portrait photographer whom Vivian boarded with in her early years. There’s no hard evidence to support any other direct connections, but within her work there’s definitely a sense that she was aware of the photographers who were becoming known in her time, such as those from the Photo League and the Institute of Design in Chicago.
AS: I understand that there is another collector, Jeff Goldstein, who possesses quite a bit of Maier’s work as well – in particular, her earlier work. What is your relationship with him, and how do your collections differ?
JM: Just to clarify things, Vivian started taking pictures in 1949/1950, and it is mostly amateur quality work at that time. The work in my collection is from 1949-1999. To date, it is largely un-scanned, so only a small portion of it has been posted on the website. We’re scanning it in chronological order, so that’s why there are only images from the 1950s and 60s up on the website; it will take some time to get to the later years, but so far we’ve found several hundred undeveloped colour rolls, and around thirty-thousand color slides that have already been developed. I’m not exactly sure how much Jeff has, or what years his collection represents. But from what I know, his collection is weighted more in the early work, and the later work (late-60s – early-70s). He purchased this collection somewhat recently, in the summer of last year. We have a friendly relationship, we’ve opened up our archives to one another for research purposes, and have since been talking about working on this immense archival project quite a bit.
AS: I’ve often seen Maier described as “an equal of” or “as good as” some of most celebrated photographers of her time – Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Harry Callahan, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, William Klein, Roy DeCarava, and so on. But I worry that her work might only be seen, understood, and celebrated through the prism of our contemporary version of photo-history, rather than recognised for itself in its own right. Each of the photographers mentioned above have a distinct aesthetic and very personal approach to photography – in your opinion, what do you think is particularly unique or special about Maier’s work?
JM: This is a very loaded question, and I can’t fully answer it until we’ve documented and explored more of her archive. At this point, judging from what’s been uncovered so far, I believe that she produced work that is equal to some of the well-known masters. Her interest in women (especially women with glamorous fashions), children, and the less fortunate have been common threads within the images that we’ve archived so far. She also has a well-rounded understanding of the formal elements of photography, as can be seen in the images on the website. But it will take more time to figure out her unique “fit” with the other masters of her time – she definitely had a personal style, which we expect to see more of as we move forward.