The discovery of Vivian Maier is unremarkable. The Chicago nanny shot to posthumous fame after thousands of her negatives turned up at auction in 2009. Under appreciated art seems to appear all the time yet what is remarkable about Maier’s story are the photographs she produced. What set Maier’s work apart is her amusing, unconventional but skilfully composed moments, captured over decades of American social and economic change. Responsible for sharing her photographs is John Maloof, whose documentary Finding Vivian Maier sent him on a mission to have them recognised in the art world. Maloof scours Maier’s hoarded possessions to find clues to the mysterious photographer’s life, finding and speaking to the families she worked for, discovering a secretive and emotionally damaged woman striving to capture and possess every experience with overwhelming vehemence.
One of the most important themes in Finding Vivian Maier is whether Maier would have objected to her private work being shared and viewed, and Maloof grapples with whether his pursuit to get Maier acknowledged by MoMA would be respectful to her wishes. He deals with the issue sensitively; eventually uncovering evidence that Meier knew her work was good and intended to have some printed as postcards. Beetles and Huxley skip this narrative. Their presentation of Maier as an artist seems secondary to the pursuit of profiting from her name.
The exhibition itself is well presented, but if anything, is focused solely on aligning Maier with her more officially recognised contemporaries and therefore raising her profile. The space is hardly groundbreaking. The selection of Maier’s black and white photography is featured and presented in a familiar, aesthetically pleasing linear way that the white cube space supports so well. Black frames focus you on the individual image without feeling busy, this traditional presentation working well to establish Maier as a photographer whose work would not look out of place alongside Diane Arbus or Elliott Erwitt.
The only problem that B+H encounter is that they don’t seem to have been offered more interesting prints from the collection. On display are stunning examples from Maier’s archive, but not the best. Although the well known image of a nanny taking the hands of two children is included in the collection (a playful response on Maier’s own profession where she would sometimes wander off to take a photograph, losing her charges in the process), many of the other images lack the same soul, and often seem like second best choices. The sheer quality of the prints too is inconsistent and seems cheap, taking away from the images vivacity. Too often a true black isn’t achieved, so those that have been well printed make the others stand out for the wrong reasons.
Each print, according to the price sheet is “numbered and signed on the reverse” but not, as you would expect by the photographer, but with Maloof’s stamp. By investing his time and energy into the publicising of Maier’s work, Maloof seems to have become the agent of authenticity of Maier’s work, rather than let the quality speak for itself. Her story is the selling point of these images, and the exhibition comes across as too focused on propelling Maier’s name forward and not in showcasing the quality of her work.
That being said, the exhibition shows some really excellent examples of Maier’s skilled portraiture. The most eye-catching example accompanies the artist’s biography, well placed in front of the B+H window onto the street. Reflected back in the image is another street, one in which Maier solemnly focuses her attention on her reflection, staring through her window straight to us behind ours. It’s not just a self portrait; a glamorous woman of a similar age to Maier perhaps walks by, her glaring eyes meeting ours through our viewpoint from the reflected cameras protective lens. Is she annoyed at being stared at, or has Maier just captured her deep in thought? Maier’s gaze remains unfaltering, painstakingly absorbed in the photograph she is making in the camera around her neck. It’s an image of glances and viewpoints, reflections and refractions between the worlds of the two women and between them and us, and one that really shows why Maier’s work is deserving of all the attention it attracts.
The B+H exhibition did well to treat Maier’s work with the respectful presentation given to the greats of mid century photography, although perhaps they could have focused a bit more on quality. Although there is a big emphasis on her reputation rather than the quality of work, it was a pleasing exhibition, in that we begin to see some recognition for Maier’s talents. But perhaps the cost of her names success is just that we no longer expect the quality that we expect.