Tuesday, January 17, 2012

“Super Nanny”

This week’s New Yorker (January 16, 2012) has a brief review (Critic’s Notebook, p 6) of the Vivian Maier shows, yes plural, in New York City. On the one hand, I’m delighted that a show of street photographs got such good press and a positive review.

[Background information follows: A couple of years ago a Chicago historian, John Maloof, who was working on a history of a specific neighborhood bought a lot of negatives from an unclaimed self-storage company in the hopes of finding photographs of the neighborhood he was researching. He didn’t. What he did find was a treasure trove of thousands of street photographs by an unknown photographer named Vivian Maier who died in 2002. After some further detective work he acquired the other half of her negatives and has spent considerable time, effort, and money to get her work in the public eye. The discovery of her work – and the quality of her work – has been on the photographic blogosphere for a year or so. Power House published a book of her work; Vivian Maier, Street Photographer in 2011. Lenswork published a portfolio of her work in its issue #97, Nov-Dec 2011. The first gallery show of her work was in Chicago last year and now two shows in NYC. The “nanny” reference in the New Yorker review alludes to her day job. Here endeth the background information.]

That said; I take a couple of issues with the review.

First is with the “Super Nanny” title. Yes, she had a day job. So did Henri Rousseau. The French art establishment’s labeling him as Le Douanier Rousseau was a not so subtle way of setting him apart from the real artists of his day. Perhaps I am spring-loaded to the sensitive position (having had a day job myself) and perhaps “Super Nanny” is only intended to be clever but it reads to me as a similar “not a real artist” label, especially when attached by a polished writer and critic.

Second is with a phrase later in the review, “Though apparently untrained, she was a keen observer …” “Apparently untrained” – do tell! It’s certainly not apparent to me. Again this reads to me as a “can’t be a real artist without an MFA” statement. A fair statement would be “Though there is no evidence that she had formal training, …” Ms. Maier was, from what little is known of her, an intensely private person – who knows what formal training she may have had. She lived most of her teen years in Paris, then in New York and in Chicago. Who knows what classes she took – what exhibitions she saw – what photographers befriended a quiet, solemn-faced young woman? Speculating about her background is interesting and fun but it’s still speculation.

Not that it keeps me from doing so, of course. It is certainly possible that she was, like Jacque-Henri Lartigue, somehow born with the instinct of knowing which way to point the camera. Looking at her work, though, and knowing that she started photographing seriously about the time she returned to New York in 1951 here’s my guess. Post-war France was a hotbed of street photography. Released from the repression of the German occupation, illustrated newspapers and magazines popped up on every street corner. There were 34 daily newspapers in Paris alone. The giants of photoreportage – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Izis, Brassai, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, Willy Ronis, and many others – were nearly household names. How could she not have been aware of – even immersed in – the aesthetic that shows so clearly in her own work? The exhibition “Four French Photographers” (Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Brassai, and Izis) at New York’s MOMA introduced this style of work to the United States in 1951.

Let’s see. When did Vivian Maier return to New York? Why, 1951. My mental image is of her going to MOMA to see that show, feeling like Paris had come with her and deciding that she could do it, too. Or maybe she had been yearning to do it but it was too expensive in post-war Paris.  By the way, the New Yorker reviewer compares her work to that of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus. I find a better comparison to be to Helen Levitt and, especially, Willy Ronis.

As for technical training – I’m guessing that she had some, even if it was the counter man at Central Camera. Her beloved 1950s-era Rolleiflex, sans light meter and automation of any kind, isn’t the most friendly of devices to use. Unless she threw away the first several (hundred) rolls of negatives, I would expect her early work to be, well, uneven. According to the interview with John Maloof in the Chicago Tribune, it was not.

There are very few artists who really work with no consideration of audience. Perhaps Vivian Maier would have been embarrassed or even distressed by the notoriety that her work is receiving. Since she left a thousand or so rolls of film undeveloped maybe it was the act of photographing that mattered to her -- or maybe she just couldn’t afford to have them developed.

The Power House book of her work is beautifully printed and many of the photographs are wonderful. I would love to see the gallery show – alas, digital prints not silver but ….

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