Viva Vivian

September, 1959, Vivian Maier

September, 1959, Vivian Maier

A semi-snarky, dismissive essay from The Atlantic about an incredibly gifted photographer suggests that her story, as an outsider–rather than the quality of the work–has captured the imagination of people who love Vivian Maier’s photography. Formal mastery combined with the timing and luck to capture a living, breathing moment, and a fascination and empathy that drove her to capture compelling images of other human beings, and quite a few of herself. That’s Vivian Maier. This is a critic who questions Maier’s rank as an artist but wrote not too long ago: “Selfies are Art.”  So which is it? She did quite a few “selfies.” Maybe those are “high art,” which is a term that pops up in the quote below. (Clemente Greenberg called. He wants his vocabulary back.) The only time I’ve been able to tolerate the term “high art” was when it was the title of a movie by Lisa Cholodenko, which, come to think of it, was about a character based on Nan Goldin, whose celebrated photographs have the same kind of spontaneity and everydayness and low-ness, for that matter, as Maier’s, but with more shock value (back in the day, anyway.) Stick ’em in the scrapbook! Anybody who was there could have taken them, right? Which is more applicable to Goldin than Maier’s shots, which are more rigorous, in formal terms.

The film does not use the term “outsider artist,” but Maier does not appear to have had any formal training and didn’t show in galleries during her lifetime. In part this may have reflected her own individual preferences or difficulties; she was by many accounts a temperamental, private person, and seems to have struggled with mental illness late in life. In part, her distance from the high art world was probably because she was working-class. Many of her pictures are of the children who were in her care; they show kids at the beach climbing over rocks, children happy, children sad. If those sound like your typical family photos, well, they are.

–Noah Berlatsky

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