the problem with Vivian Maier

Nothing like a wee feminist rant to start out Christmas Eve Day. If I were cleverer, I’d make a little ditty to the tune of the “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” but I am not. So instead you get this post.

It starts with this tweet.

tweet_maier copy

I was keen to read an analysis of “the hidden history of women’s photography,” because I’ve been interested in the subject for a long time. Not only was I disappointed, but it’s possible that I ranted a bit loudly at my husband about it.

I mostly skimmed through the article, eager to find the meat about the hidden history of women’s photography. I had to skim all the way to the final paragraph and then it was just a mention.

“In Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, Vivian Maier finally finds her audience, but one that can’t tarnish the purity of her work. In that work lies the hidden history of women’s art—expression for expression’s sake, despite all the odds. How many other Vivian Maiers remain out there, waiting to be found? How many more will never be found? As Vivian Maier’s self-portraits prove, the loss is not theirs, but ours.”

On the one hand, I get what the author is saying: part of the fascination with her work is precisely because she spent her whole life making it, and the very fact that much of it was never even developed shows that she never planned to show it to anyone. It would seem that she really made pictures purely for the sake of it.

But I have to say, I’m a bit troubled by a few things about Vivian Maier, the main one being that a bunch of white guys are making money off her work when she never made a dime from it. A huge chunk of her work was never printed in her lifetime, likely because she didn’t have the time or money for the printing or for the storage of the prints. Her main collector, John Maloof, found her work after it was auctioned because she couldn’t pay the rent on her storage.

This narrative (or should I say myth?) of the starving artist only getting recognition posthumously, is not new. Van Gogh’s probably the most famous victim of it. But in Maier’s case it’s problematized by a few things. I find it particularly interesting that her livelihood was nannying – a hugely important job that remains undervalued thanks to systemic sexism. Where Van Gogh’s brother was an art dealer with access to audiences (and new thinking seems to be that he was well admired by people who knew his work during his lifetime), Maier was effectively a servant for upper-class families. Even if she had access to someone like that, what is the likelihood that they would pay attention to the artistic intentions of a female servant?

The article says that her work has found its audience but “one that can’t tarnish the purity of her work.” Since when does an audience tarnish the purity of an artist’s work? There are plenty of working (male) artists with big audiences who don’t seem to mind their impurity. In an article that also mentions the fact that Maier never married (she remained ‘pure’ to her art?), I can’t help but read “virgin” into its praise of her pure vision. No doubt someone will complain that I’m reading too much into the statement, but it smacks of the same sort of virgin-whore thinking that for so long has pervaded ideas of women’s sexuality.

And the fact that other women artists may remain undiscovered like Maier being our loss and not theirs? I beg to differ. The woman died in poverty, unable to pay for the storage of her life’s work! That’s a huge loss for her! That’s a horrible loss that we should be striving to prevent from ever happening again. Shame on the author for not, at the very least, linking to the Guerrilla Girls, who have been working for decades to raise awareness of the erasure of women’s art from the canon.

The article pays lip service to “the restrictions imposed on [women]” making art, but does a major disservice by ignoring the systemic barriers to women gaining recognition for that art in the art world. As I’ve blogged about before (links in the second paragraph of this post), women have been involved in significant ways in every major photography movement. But if you look to The History of Photography, say, to see a whole picture of that history, (which would be reasonable given its title isn’t “The History of Men’s Photography,”) you will see virtually no women.

The “hidden history of women’s photography” is not “expression for expression’s sake” because of course women could never tarnish their reputations by seeking An Audience. The hidden history is an explicit erasure.

I don’t mean to suggest that the author of the article supports such an erasure, certainly not consciously. But the lack of depth in exploring “the hidden history of women’s photography” shows just the kind of thoughtlessness that allows the status quo to remain.