Vivian Maier, a case of wild speculation?

Vivian Maier fotografa autoritratto
Self portrait © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

I remember discovering Vivian Maier's existence by seeing the large number of photos that John Maloof, self-styled sole discoverer of the French-born photographer's work, had posted on Flickr in 2009.

The feeling in front of images so well constructed that they had emerged from nowhere was that of a strong excitement mixed with astonishment bordering on disbelief.

Was it possible that all that material had been in the dark for over 40 years?

A strong sense of uneasiness and anguish still takes me today in thinking of the immense number of undeveloped films that have fallen into the hands of those who bought the lot containing, together with them, developed prints and negatives (together with a wide range of personal effects from the photographer). Yes, it disturbs me and I find there is something eerie and pornographic about developing and looking at negatives for the first time that have not been seen and considered by the photographer in life.

New York, NY, 1955. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York fotografa
New York, NY, 1955. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

I can understand and accept the activity of a public institution, which deals with dedicating itself to the rediscovery of a photographer, who is deemed worthy of that great effort that goes through the development-cataloging of unpublished and never seen material, without the missing person has left any indications or opinions of any kind on the matter. When, to do this are private subjects that for the sole fact of

having purchased the largely undisclosed archive of a photographer for a few dollars, work on it before ascertaining the existence of possible heirs in life

I feel it as a violation of the privacy of a person who no longer has the possibility to prevent this from happening. The question gives me a sense of uneasiness and reminds me of the story of the archaeologists who violated the tombs of the Pharaohs in search of the treasure. Moreover, Curt Matthews, one of his latest employers, released this memo:

"He told me that if he hadn't kept his photographs hidden, someone would have stolen or misused them."

Vivian Maier e John Maloof
Vivian Maier and John Maloof

When it is learned that John Maloof began to develop the films himself without knowing that emulsions thirty and more years old had to be treated considering particular technical measures to obtain good negatives, I am reminded of an inexperienced archaeologist who cuts a hoe. on golden sarcophagi making the unfortunate mummy jump.

Over a hundred films have undergone the technical attack of 'underdevelopment', but nothing serious, he tells us, they are only little contrasted ...

(From left: Vivian Maier's Film Box / John Maloof's Self-Portrait)

Subsequently, having not yet formed an idea on the matter, the vision of the documentary film 'Finding Vivian Maier', produced by Maloof himself, transmitted to me a whole series of information that, as a spectator, passively, I absorbed, assuming the reconstruction was good and honest. the personality of the photographer who was provided.

The nanny takes pictures outside the box, without a past, solitary, perhaps misanthropic, the bearer of who knows what mystery dressed out of fashion, bizarre, generically 'strange' according to a yardstick that wants the woman to respond to certain stylistic features and if she doesn't, she can easily be cataloged in these various and colorful ways without attempting a deeper consideration of what the reality was.

To date, also thanks to an interesting and informed book by Pamela Bannos "Vivian Maier, Life and Fortune of a Photographer" published in Italy in 2018, I have seen the whole story linked to the discovery of the photographer from New York - Chicago and perhaps it may be interesting to discuss some issues together.

To begin: the archive of still undeveloped prints, negatives and rolls of film has been irretrievably lost. The reason? Very simple,

chi ha messo le mani sul materiale non aveva la minima idea di cosa stesse maneggiando

for a long enough time for the dispersion in a thousand streams to occur. Perhaps such unawareness would also have been of those who have a greater awareness in the photographic field but, to aggravate the situation, the boxes containing Vivian Maier's material went mainly into the hands of people interested in reselling / selling off what they had purchased. People used to emptying the cellars, for which they have all the respect until with their understandable thirst for gain they do not break up assets that should remain intact and not be badly damaged. The same characters then began to pretend to be saviors of a photographic heritage that would have been lost, in some cases acclaimed, for this reason, by the 'intelligentsia' of the world of photography that finds it difficult to call things for what they are, perhaps because they do not he wants to lose the opportunity to exploit the freak phenomenon.

The initial interest, especially on the part of John Maloof, the most ravenous of all the major holders of material produced by Vivian Maier, was that of

make money by reselling negative singles on Ebay

(Do you understand what this means? The gentleman took strips of negatives and cut out individual frames to be auctioned, the highest bidder winning them for figures between 10 and 30 dollars. Fantastic, true, that then this same person has the courage to present himself as a deserving savior of the work of Vivian Maier who instead contributed to damage, damaging all of us who would like that heritage to be intact and in the hands of institutions that take care of it, not to create a myth to be exploited by selling prints, original and otherwise, at astronomical prices but to try the very difficult work of putting together the pieces of a photographer's life and groped to give shape and meaning to her artistic production. An act of love, which leads to a real understanding of Vivian Maier's stature, as a photographer and author, not a company that grinds money.

Vivian Maier, Chicago, IL, 1956. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Vivian Maier, Chicago, IL, 1956. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Instead, if we read, for example, the first lines of the presentation given to the exhibition "Vivian Maier - A rediscovered photographer" organized by FORMA (19 November 2015 - 31 January 2016) we can read the story told in this way:

"It was 2007 when John Maloof, a real estate agent at the time, bought part of the Maier archive confiscated for non-payment during an auction. He immediately realizes that he has found a precious treasure and from that moment on he will not stop looking for material concerning this mysterious photographer, arriving to archive over 150,000 negatives and 3,000 prints ”.

Here is the link:

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalog published by Contrasto, in which we can read the Preface by Laura Lippman who wallowing in the stereotype of strangeness as a distinctive and mythical character of the rediscovered photographer, writes:

“Who is that bizarre middle-aged lady ever going to be? Who knows. You seem harmless to me. Take pictures that no one will ever see "

The myth is served, given to the audience that is waiting for nothing but easy poetry.

Moreover, the publisher of the catalog is the same (Contrasto) who publishes the most interesting and problematic book by Pamela Bannos of which I am speaking extensively. They publish everything, without making field distinctions. Just sell it!

 © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
© Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Regarding the fact that Maloof 'understood immediately' what he had in his hands, I think it is very interesting to reread and reflect on a post he published on 10 October 2009 on a Flickr group: Hardcore Street Photography:

For those unfamiliar with the English language, I summarize: he says he won 30-40000 negatives of a recently dead photographer at an auction (at the time of purchase Vivian Maier was still alive and the boxes containing her life had been put on the market. auction because he had stopped paying the rent of the boxes in which he kept them) and asked the social media audience:

'What am I doing with all these photos? Will it be good for making a book or exhibitions? How often do you discover something like this? '

Certainly he was beginning to become aware of having something very interesting in his hands from which he could raise a nice nest egg but he certainly hadn't understood much more than this. A precious treasure but only for what concerns the earnings that you can make, not the precious treasure of Atget's photographic plate archive that Berenice Abbott had saved and delivered to Moma for the love of photography by that master she had personally known.

This awareness will come later when the dispersion of the material had already paid off, for bad and for good for Maloof:

"Overall, between March 2008 and August 2009, about 200 negatives and 265 digital prints made from over a hundred negatives, with gross proceeds of about $ 5,000, had been lost through sales on Maloof's Ebay. Considering the initial investment of $ 380, sales on Ebay had generated excellent profits "

(Pamela Bannos, op. cit. pag 120)