We are very pleased to announce the addition of Vivian Maier as a Master with In-Public. Her story and photography have created huge interest around the world and it seems utterly appropriate to acknowledge her contribution to street photography here. And much of this is due to the fortuitous event of her life’s work being discovered by John Maloof shortly before she died in 2009. He is part of the incredible story and he is interviewed here by David Gibson.
DG. Firstly can you summarise your current activity with Vivian Maier’s archive including the scanning which I understand is 90% complete. Are there still more important images to emerge?
JM. I personally scanned Maier’s negatives for the first few years which was sort of a learning process because I had to re-start the scanning over about two or three times with a different organizing method. Finally, I hired a professional lab to archive her work. They started over from the beginning and created digital contact sheets from her rolls under a very organized file naming convention. Her black and white rolls are all scanned. There are around six hundred rolls of later 35mm color film that have yet to be processed and scanned still. It’s a very labor intensive process because every roll needs to be snipped to test the chemistry before processing due to the age of the film. I expect this to be done this year or next.
DG. In a unusual way, Vivian Maier left the ultimate body of work by keeping her own persona mysterious. This may not have been completely deliberate because she was beset by various problems but her story – that of the forgotten / outsider – resonates way beyond the usual photography watcher. In this sense arguably her true legacy to photography exceeds that of her undoubted talent because she has brought far more people to street photography than probably anyone else for many years. Would you agree with that?
JM. I would agree with that.
DG. There are many contradictions in her story and her self-portraits seem at odds with her privacy. Was she just using herself as an available subject or do you think something else was going on?
JM. My personal opinion is that she was just looking for a good picture and she happened to be the subject in some of them when it made sense to her. The fact that her room was private and her personal life was private doesn’t mean she was all-together a private person. She was not shy. In fact, quite the opposite. She was extremely opinionated, she was demanding to strangers in shops, she approached people she was interested in talking to and blatantly asked for favors from people she didn’t know.
DG. Was there a time with your connection with Vivian Maier – almost like with writing a biography – where some of her persona overwhelmed you a little? Have you ever dreamt about her for instance, have you ‘talked’ with her? This is a strange question I know but we often imagine conversations with people close to us once they have passed on. What I’m getting at is how you view your ‘relationship’ with Vivian.
JM. I could explain how this ties into my life a little. I didn’t know anything about street photography in 2007. I wasn’t a photographer. However, ever since I was a child I’ve been an artist. So, when I saw the images of Chicago (which were purchased to help illustrate a history book I was co-authoring and never actually used), I thought “these are pretty cool” and I had the urge to document my city using a camera. This was the spark that led me down a path of becoming obsessed with photography. I would scan her negatives, get inspired, hit the streets, scan my negatives, etc, etc. At this time, I thought these images were good but, what did I know? I’m was not a seasoned photographer that can decipher good/bad. I continued to the point where I self taught myself the basic history of photography and had the hunch that these were above just “good”. That’s when I posted them on Flickr and I think you know the story from there.
My point is that, because her photography changed the course of my life, I am very protective of it. I think of her as my teacher, my influence. I have a lot of respect for her. I don’t have dreams about her. I’ve never “talked” to her. I really don’t believe in any of that stuff. She’s amazing and she changed my life so I owe it to her, to take good care of her work.
DG. Vivian Maier’s story is in part about the communal power of the Internet, her fame was born from it and there is some irony that her obsessiveness / curiosity would have thrived there. Admittedly she was probably the wrong generation, she died in 2009 but conceivably she could have used the Internet. What are your thoughts on that?
JM. I don’t know, but if it weren’t for the Internet I don’t think anyone would know about her. I don’t think she would have put her work on the Internet even if she was able to do so. She did not share her personal feelings with others. Her photography was her voice that she kept hidden most likely because she was not able to show it to anyone. I understand that. It makes sense based on what I know of her.
DG. Geoff Dyer in his introduction to the recent book asserts that “it is important to retain a sense of perspective” when considering Vivian Maier’s work. You are probably a little protective of Vivian’s work but when you consider some of the recognised greats – and her ‘peers’ – such as Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and Robert Frank, how do you think she fares?
JM. Let me just note that because I’m protective of her work it doesn’t mean that I’m going to claim she is something she is not. I’m very aware that there is a lot of hype about her work. Some of it annoys me personally but it’s all helping spread her work to a larger audience. I’m not going to say “she’s better than…” or “she’s not as good as…” But think of it this way, she worked as somewhat of an outsider, she never showed her work to others for feedback and continued making that work without knowing what others might think of it her whole life. To me that is the most amazing aspect of her as an artist. Think about that. Fifty years of taking photos not knowing or caring about what others think…and the work turns out to be incredible. That gives me goosebumps.
DG. Her awareness of her peers is surely relevant. She cannot have taken all those photographs in complete isolation from the photographic world. Is there much evidence of this, for instance, did her hoarding include magazines, articles or books on photography?
JM. Yes, she definitely was aware of other photographers. She had books from Robert Capa to Lewis Hine, Thomas Struth to Steve Schapiro. However, she had a collection of over 2,000 books and photography was just a small slice of that. They ranged from romance novels, European economics, film history, biographies, American history, etc. She was a very curious person and an intellectual so her collection ran a wide gamut.
DG. Vivian Maier was rooted in the tradition of black and white photography, this is what she is known for but her move to colour in the early 1970s is interesting. Was she caught up in a possible trend at the time or would you view it as a necessary progression?
JM. I’m not sure but this is my hunch. She started to hoard rolls of exposed black and white film around 1973. She no longer had access to a dark room to process these rolls. Color film offered more exposures at a cheaper price per shot and the lab could make affordable prints from them with a quick turnaround. It seemed like a necessary step for her given her financial position, but this is just an educated guess.
DG. You state emphatically on the website that the Maloof Collection is completely dedicated to promote the work of Vivian Maier but would you ever consider taking on another ‘undiscovered’ photographer? Have people perhaps suggested names to you?
JM. Ha! Please no more! Actually, I still buy negatives/archives at estate sales because most people sell them for next to nothing and I can’t just walk away. I have a few smaller archives I have never really looked at. I don’t have the time to look at them but I feel like they’re better in my possession than in the garbage
DG. My understanding of you is that you have had a very steep learning curve with photography. And subsequently you have also become a very good street photographer. Your style is obviously contemporary but has Vivian influenced you as a photographer?
JM. Thank you for the compliment. My work really started in early 2008 and it was basically copying Maier’s style as much as possible because that’s what I liked and that’s what drove me to hit the streets. It’s very obvious if you see my work from then. I’ve been inspired by many different photographers since then, especially those who shoot in color.