Sunday, February 17, 2013

Out of the shadows -- in more ways than one

I met an interesting character last night at the opening reception of the “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows” show at Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW).

[For those not up on the photographic buzz – Vivian Maier lived in Chicago for most of her adult life, working as a nanny for wealthy families on Chicago’s north side.  Unknown to almost everyone she photographed nearly daily in her neighborhood and on the inner-city streets of Chicago for 30 years.  Her work is often compared to Lisette Model’s work but I find it more in the tradition of the French humanist photographers – Willy Ronis or Robert Doisneau – or city photographers such as Helen Levitt or John Gutmann.  She was more than a bit of a hoarder, renting a couple of storage lockers in which to stash her negatives and other memorabilia.  She neglected (or could not afford) to pay the storage rentals so her materials were eventually sold at auction shortly before her death.  The worth of her negatives was quickly realized and a scramble ensued to gather them together from the several people who had bought boxes with unknown contents.]

The show at PCNW is made up of 50 or so 12x12 inch silver prints selected from the 20,000 or so 2 ¼ negatives in the “Goldstein” part of the negatives left behind when Ms. Maier died in 2009.  80,000 or so negatives and color slides are owned by a Chicago realtor/historian named Maloof.  There may be more.

Both Mr. Maloof and Mr. Goldstein have published books of photographs drawn from their respective shares of this treasure trove.  Both books are worth having.  In my opinion, the Maloof  book is more tightly edited and the reproductions are superior to those in the Goldstein book.  On the other hand the Goldstein book contains a much broader cross-section of Ms. Maier’s work and has a well-researched accompanying text about her life.

Ms Maier did little printing of her negatives and her darkroom skill was definitely no match for her skill in knowing which way to point the camera before pushing the button.  Mr. Maloof and his colleagues embarked on the monumental task of scanning their treasure trove and have had several shows of digital prints made from Ms. Maier’s negatives.   Mr. Goldstein decided that these negatives would be better served by silver prints – the technology available at the time Ms. Maier was taking them.  A selection of these prints makes up the show at PCNW.

Well, unlike the situation in 1968 or thereabouts, photography labs capable of making exhibition quality prints don’t grow on trees today – not even in a city the size of Chicago.

Enter the interesting character.  Ron Gordon is a below-the-radar, Chicago-based photographer doing mostly architectural photography for his own work – and a printer who began that career in a commercial lab in 1968.  For most of the intervening years he had his own lab specializing in black and white silver printing both for commercial and artist clients.  He has retired “a couple of times” intending to concentrate on his own work but returning to custom printing upon sufficient pleading.  A mutual acquaintance introduced him to Mr. Goldstein – who showed him some of the Maier negatives – and the game was over.  Not only did he fall in love with her work but he said that it was almost certain that he and Ms. Maier were photographing at the same place on the same day sometime during the years that Ms. Maier was active: he with his 4x5 on a tripod, she with her trusty Rolleiflex.

This good-natured, unassuming, supposedly-retired master printer and his co-conspirator, Sandra Steinbrecher, have spent most of the last two years cranking out editions of 15.  His air is that of a man who is having a wonderful time. 

I hasten to assure you that master printer is exactly what he is!  The prints remind me of how pretty a silver print can be.  You can like the photographs or not (I do – at least most of them) but you cannot fail to be dazzled by the beauty of the prints.  Mr. Gordon gave an impromptu talk about the photographs, his attraction to them, and his printing of them.  It’s pretty rare for a back-room person like him to get roaring applause.

I haven’t seen a crowd that thick at a PCNW show for a long time.  Almost everyone there had seen the show at least once before.  The gallery director asked the crowd how many were darkroom workers – about half the crowd raised a hand. It seems that the age of silver isn’t past yet.

I find it heartening that there is so much buzz about a body of work that is definitely not avant garde – straight-ahead representational photography, relatively small prints, no lofty artist statements, white mats in black frames.  I suppose that the fact that Ms. Maier died unknown adds to the buzz. (A gallery director in Portland assured me that he would be glad to show my street photography if I were dead.)   I wonder how it would have been received if she had attempted to show it herself?  But that is a different rant and rave.

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