What makes the difference between a recognized artist and a dabbler, an amateur or a dilettante? I am sure there are formulas, Ph.D. dissertations and many entire books on the subject. I’m not writing this as an expert, only an observer.
And I’ve been observing the case of Vivian Maier, a long-time amateur street photographer whose work was only discovered by accident in 2007 and attributed to her shortly after her death in 2009. Her images were uncovered by a few auction buyers who purchased her negatives−they were intrigued by the images. Through their efforts her work has since been published in blogs and international publications and exhibited by museums. A documentary about her life and work is in production. Much of what makes the work compelling is the story behind it−a reclusive and private nanny who never really shared her images and found recognition only after the end of an austere life.
That could be tragic. We all want to know in our own lifetime how our work is received. But then again she appears to have intentionally stayed out of sight. Maybe the tragedy is that we have thrust an intensely private person into the spotlight with our admiration. Tragedy (and overcoming it) makes a powerful narrative. And that narrative, as much as her work, is what is propelling Maier onto the world stage as an artist. Other tragic photojournalism figures have caught our attention this way, from war photographer Robert Capa’s companion Gerda Taro, who was killed by a tank in the Span- ish Civil War to New York Times photographer João Silva who recently lost both legs to a mine in Afghanistan. Capa, and Magnum colleagues David “Chim” Seymour and Werner Bischof have tragic narratives in tandem with their great images, as do all-too-recent conflict photography casualties Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. The story of the death in Somalia of young photojournalist Dan Eldon would have lingered in our hearts and minds for a relatively brief amount of time. But he left behind his own narrative journals, and those were aired by his mother and sister in Dying to Tell the Story, an excellent documentary film on conflict photographers.
Drama isn’t the only propeller of narrative, though. Character plays an important part too. It’s very hard to think of a canonized artist who was not a great character. Georgia O’Keefe, for example, caught the public’s attention intensely after her work was interpreted as sensual or sexual despite her objections. With that interpretation, she became a character in the art world and more famous as a result. Then after moving to New Mexico in the 1940s she created an entirely new character of the reclusive desert artist. Rarely is her work seen without either persona in mind by the viewer.
When we decide to become photojournalists we are often choosing a character already−one of a world-traveling bon vivant as Andre Friedman and Gerta Pohorylle created in the invention of Capa and Taro. Or we imagine ourselves grizzled war correspondents like Eddie Adams, artful cowboys like Bill Allard, sensitive investigators like Donna Ferrato, or artists of the ephemeral like Sylvia Plachy or Martine Francke. Of course art is important. No amount of character can (for long at least) make up for a lack of talent. This brings me back to Vivian Maier. In a recent article in Chicago magazine, Colin Westerbeck, a former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and coauthor of Bystander: A History of Street Photography, said in an interview, “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.”
No, she doesn’t. The work is familiar even where it is compelling. It lacks, perhaps, the higher purposes of academic art where the artist strives for a statement, an irony, a challenge that may only be evident to academics or those who bothered to read the analytical preface of the book.
I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity. I’ve been watching her images appear on the blog of John Maloof, one of the buyers of her archive, since before her fascinating narrative began to unfold. Those images had me from the start. Hers is the work of an artist who worked only for her own satisfaction. The opinion of friends, relatives, editors or critics was never sought. The images are wonderful because they are done only for her personal pleasure, yet they still surpass the work of a million other amateurs working contemporaneously.
Yes, she is an artist with a great narrative. As much as we would hope our being defined as “artists” is a result of our work alone, the art is only a sliver of the formula. What is accepted as art and who is defined as an artist is as much about marketing our narratives as it is about anything else.
In marketing that narrative we must also craft our work to the expectations of the critics, the editors and collectors who will buy it, or the academic analysts who will deconstruct it. For ourselves,though, we need to stay pure and chase what intrigues and satisfies ourselves−all those others be damned−as Vivian Maier did.