RickB3 Photography

Vivian Maier Bores Me

Thursday, February 23, 2017 5:40 PM

Every year one of the photography clubs I belong to holds a competition for the best photograph in the style of some famous and accomplished photographer: Weston, Adams, Lange, etc. 

Under debate this year is a list of photographers which includes Vivian Maier. When her name popped up, I wrote to the group that “to be honest, I’ve never gotten Vivian Maier. Bores me silly.” But I offered to discuss the matter with anyone who did like her, in hopes of learning something. I have a lot to learn.

Surprisingly one of the other members, Dave, actually did respond, saying “She captured a moment in time…,” “and so much beautiful history” and “shooting anything on the street today represents an important record….” Which I understand fully.

But here’s the rub: Is that all there is? I had hoped there would be more to Maier than that, some underlying truth that I just missed. She is an excellent historian—good light, usually perfect composition, effective black to white gradations, etc. A technically proficient recorder of facts. Dave, actually one of the best photographers in the club, asked me, “Do you like street photography?”  Well, no, I don’t. I’d rather read Shakespeare than Holinshed.

I see so many contests and exhibitions in which the most praised images are, to me, chaotic messes. They look to me as if someone was walking through Times Square, for example, saw the chaos of people and cars and buildings, whipped out his iPhone, and snapped a random shot. A “snapshot,” which to me is almost the worst thing you can say about an image which purports to have a serious intent. Turn it into black and white and get a blue ribbon from some photo exhibition somewhere.

In my previous life as an English professor, one of my favorite quotes was from playwright Edward Albee: “Fiction is fact distorted into truth.” The key word for me here is “distorted.” I always took this as the creative process going to work on reality and creating new and unexpected truths. And for me, this is where Maier comes up short. Her photos are just a factual record of a time and a place, average photojournalism, snapshots, undistorted. Granted, she has a sure sense of subject, and there are almost none of those chaotic, purposeless, and unfocused street scenes, but her subjects are not interesting. To me. 

I know she was not trying to create art—her life is such a mystery anyway and we don’t really have a full understanding of her purposes and intents, but it’s safe to say creating art—in the sense of Rembrandt, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso—is not part of it. And I don’t fault her for that. But when you look at, say, Robert Capa or Steve McCurry, you see that “mere” reportage can be distorted into art, into truth. 

In concluding, Dave writes, “A more recent street photographer favorite of mine is Valerie Jardin.” I wasn’t familiar with her work so I looked her up. What a revelation! To me, Jardin is everything Maier is not—inventive, creative, “distorting" the facts of her images into startling truths--art, in other words. Look at the images on her home page (as of 2/23/2017)—only one can be said to be a straight-on factual record—the one of the two shopkeepers fussing with the awning of their pizza shop. Move on—nothing to see here. I can see Vivian Maier having taken that one. The others—take the first one as an example, the one of the woman in the hat that mostly obscures her face—are pure genius.