Since the discovery and exposure of Vivian Maier's work in 2009, this reclusive, mysterious figure—street photographer, nanny, visual genius—has been the subject of widespread acclaim and attention. From monographs to worldwide gallery exhibitions and now the widespread release of a feature film (the second documentary produced about her life and her work), the attention that Maier's story has generated is dwarfed only by the astounding quality of the photographs she left behind.
Jim Casper, the editor of LensCulture, spoke with curator Anne Morin, the curator of the great exhibition, "Vivian Maier: A Photographic Revelation" that is traveling across Europe over the next few years.
Jim Casper: What was your role in the discovery and eventual dissemination of Vivian Maier's work?
Anne Morin: I first heard about Vivian Maier in 2011 and I have been very interested by her photographs ever since. A year later, I was in touch with Howard Greenberg, the gallerist responsible for Vivian Maier prints, and John Maloof, the collector who holds tens of thousands of Maier's negatives. With their help, I developed a curatorial project and we showed it for the first time in Spain. It then moved on, to France—everywhere it went, it got a huge response. It is now in Ghent, Belgium and in the future will move on to Amsterdam, Berlin, Venice…
JC: Much of the attention surrounding Maier has focused on her mysterious, quirky personality, her psychology, her story. But outside of that, what are your curatorial feelings about her work as a photographer?
AM: Her story is definitely amazing but I have to work hard to keep it separate from the physical reality of her photographs. In terms of her work, I think she’s one of the top street photographers, ever. She has a key place in the history of the medium—right next to Robert Frank and all the other great practitioners. Her images contain all the specificity of street photography while also referencing the history of visual culture. This is no accident. She used to frequent exhibitions and museums as much as she could. She knew the work of Brassai, of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I hope that my exhibition helps place her work in the history of the field. I leave it to others to puzzle over her psychology, her motivations.
JC: As far as we know, she was completely self-taught, right?
AM: First of all, we know that Maier's mother made some photos from time to time. As well, there’s a little story that when Maier was young, her parents split up and her mother took Maier to live in Brooklyn. There, they shared a flat with a French photographer named Jeanne Bertrand. As an artist, Bertrand was very close to the Surrealists and a key member of the French art world. Maier and her mother lived with her for 4 years—maybe this was Maier's first brush with fine art photography? Still, by and large, no one taught her photography formally.
JC: How many Vivian Maier negatives have been discovered, to date?
AM: It’s quite difficult to say, in fact. But it’s somewhere between 120,000-150,000. The reason for that large range is that the recovery of Maier's negatives is still ongoing. For example, there are 6,000 rolls of film that Maier didn’t even develop. There is damaged color film, which is difficult to restore. She also recorded her voice on cassette tapes, keeping a sometimes daily log of her thoughts and ideas. She left really a lot of stuff and we are still working hard to make sense of it all.
JC: Of the 120,000-150,000 negatives that have been discovered, how many have been looked at? Did you go through all of them to put together this exhibition?
AM: In short, nobody besides John Maloof has access to all the work—I make a selection of a selection which has already been done.
In the 1940s, she worked with a Brownie. Then, in 1951, she bought a Rolleiflex. Technically, much of her early work was poorly done or badly preserved (overexposed, damaged, undeveloped, ruined during the 30 years of storage). In particular, her color photographs have been the hardest to recover. John Maloof has worked with new chemical developers in an effort to develop and recover as much of her color photographs as possible but it has been very, very difficult. I wanted to include color in the exhibition but what you see is only a fraction of what she produced.
Besides the negatives, there are about 5,000 vintage prints that Maier made between 1965-1973, when she was living in Chicago. During those years, she was a nanny and living in the house of the family she worked for. She had her own bedroom and bathroom and transformed her bathroom into a personal darkroom. This was the first and last time she had access to a darkroom in her life.
Looking at these personal prints, it seems to me that she was much more interested in the process of taking photographs than in producing a physical image, a print. In many, many cases, after taking a photograph, the film would be set aside, undeveloped. She was obsessed with recording the world but didn’t necessarily need to see these recordings afterward. Her relationship with the world occurred through her camera, through the process of photographing/filming her surroundings. But once the recording was finished, she wasn't as interested in looking at the result.
JC: What seemed to interest Maier out in the world? What was her eye drawn towards?
AM: One persistent tendency was her desire to take pictures of people on the periphery. She said that she preferred to shoot in poor neighborhoods because that's where people are living out on the streets. In rich areas, she couldn't take as many pictures because rich people stay in their apartments. And in the business centers, people moved too fast to be photographed. So, she spent most of her time in poor neighborhoods, photographing people like her—people outside of society, outside of the establishment, on the edge. There's a strong connection between her and her subject. It seems like there's a mirror-like quality in all of her portraits of these people, as if she were present in all her photographs.
Occasionally, she would make portraits of rich people. But these photographs feel very different. There’s something very aggressive about these pictures. She is very close to them and right in their face. It’s like she’s stealing something from them, rather than seeing herself in their image.
And of course, her literal self-portraits are a thread that run throughout her 40 years of photographing. She works brilliantly in this genre. In these photos, it’s where she experiments the most and tries to find her place in the world.
JC: When you were preparing the exhibition, how did you make your selection?
AM: My overarching principle when putting this show together was that I wanted to produce something that she would have agreed with. I wanted to look at her work carefully and prudently, conveying a balance between her portraits, her black and white, her color. I wanted to convey some of the specificity of her style without imposing my own interpretation too strongly. In other words, I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks and invent a Vivian Maier that does not exist.
JC: When you look at her color work versus her black and white work, you feel that the former is very geometric. Do you think that working in color improved her black and white photographs?
AM: Her color photographs focus on the musicality of the image, the forms, the density of the colors. She was really working in the medium of color when she took color photographs. In her black and white work, her focus seems to be on her subjects, the people pictured. She also took most of her self-portraits in black and white.
In the color photographs, the figures begin to disappear. I think the color work announces the end of her life. She’s about to finish making photographs and about to disappear from the world. As her identity is fading, we can feel that fading through the growing abstraction in her images.
JC: What happens next with this amazing collection?
AM: John Maloof is taking care of everything. He is developing the negatives, scanning and digitizing her already printed work, going through her non-photographic materials (audio cassettes) and so on. But there are always new photographs being discovered from the immense archive that she left behind. Every day there are new pictures.
JC: So for many years, we will continue to be delighted with new discoveries.
AM: Indeed—ten years, maybe longer! Her genius continues to shine upon us and grow ever brighter.
—Anne Morin, interviewed by Jim Casper
Anne Morin is the director of diChroma photography, which specializes in international traveling photographic exhibitions, as well as in the development and production of cultural projects. She is based in Madrid, Spain.
For more information about Viviane Maier, check the official website. Also, be sure to watch the trailer below and look for a screening of "Finding Vivian Maier" at a cinema near you.