Vivian Maier: Hype or hyper good?

At this moment two photo books are available with a selection of the photos of Vivian Maier. Maier is nowadays very popular. As well as her books as the exhibitions are successful. A visitor of an exhibition stated:
“The reception was jam packed. Wall to wall people. Too many in fact. Soon after we got there they stopped letting people in. Then it started to thin out and you could see more than one photo at a time. When we finally left there was a line about 100 feet long waiting to get in.” (Charles B58:
It seems that there is a serious audience to buy prints of het photos. According to the NYTimes a print of 12 x 12 inch cost $1800 – $5000. Based on her popularity the question rise if Vivian Maier is that good as suggested or are we confronting a well-organized hype, surrounded with a bit of mysteriousness.

Maier’s quantity…

Let’s be clear on this, Maier made marvelous photos. But there is something that bothers me. After reading her books my subjective conclusion was that Vivian Maier’s first book, Street Photographer, was far more better than her second book, Out of the Shadows. The first book is based on the Maloof collection and the second on Goldsteins. The legacy of Maier contains more than 100,000 negatives and almost 30,000 prints. If we assume that 1% of her photos are exceptional good, there’s enough material to publish several photo books and organize many exhibitions. But is Vivian Maier, with the assumed 1% exceptional good photos, an exceptional photographer? Stop, wait, hold-on!!

I’m in doubt…

Vivian Maier photos are stylish, well-toughed and are telling a concealed story. Such photos are published in the book Street Photographer. This book invited the reader to read it over and over again. For the reader it is like a quest to… to… to what? It’s for sure a pleasant quest, period! However, the book Out of the Shadow is different. It contains some good photos, but also snapshots taken on a beach. Based on this subjective observation we may conclude that Maier did not reached a continue high level of performance. The two books deliver the proof for this conclusion.

Hype or hyper good…

It is indisputable that Maier’s photos are good and shows a broad diversity (strong portraits, artistic impressions and snapshots). In my opinion good photographers always have a high level of performance. Even their snapshots are attractive. I am not sure if this is valid for Vivian Maier. Her legacy contains enough photos to select hundreds of excellent copies. But the conclusion is justified that Maier was good, but not that good as Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and/or Joel Meyerowitz (just to name some high performers). The recipe to create a Vivian Maier hype: making an extremely good selection of Vivian Maier’s’ photos, using the modern digital possibilities of worldwide communication, and add a little bit of mysteriousness to it.
Vivian Maier… with the fantastic photos she made, she is capable to make me doubt her level of expertise.

(The photo below is made during an exhibition of Vivian Maier. Her cameras are in the front.)


1 Comment

  1. ISO640 — 22/02/2014 at 14:28

    A little late to the party on this post but I’d just like to point out the following:

    You commented that Maier isn’t as good as “Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and/or Joel Meyerowitz (just to name some high performers).” Keep in mind, the above photographers curated their own work, so we never got to see what many may consider mediocre work. Joel Meyerowitz even pointed this out in an interview about Maier. None of us is seeing a true representation of her work because the artist isn’t the one selecting it.

    From what I’ve read about Maier, the fact that her work is being displayed at all would bother her. She didn’t often share her work with anyone. She didn’t take photographs, it would seem, for recognition, it seems it was more a compulsion than anything artistic. I suspect anyway that if she or another photographer were curating her life’s work, we’d be getting a different image of Vivian Maier.


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