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.