Articles

The Vivian Maier “Discovery” Is More Complicated Than We Thought

by Jillian Steinhauer on July 21, 2014

Vivian Maier, “Untitled” (1959) (© Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary about the nanny who’s gained incredible posthumous fame for her previously unseen work as a photographer, was released this past weekend in the UK. But in addition to garnering reviews, it’s also bringing a longstanding but little-covered conflict over Maier’s work and archive to light. The film’s release has “fuelled a row between the men whose accidental discovery of her work … led to Maier belatedly coming to the world’s attention and garnering a posthumous reputation on a par with Henri Cartier-Bresson,” the Independent reported.

The documentary was made by John Maloof, the principal holder of Maier’s work and belongings. It follows his journey of discovery, from purchasing a box of her negatives on a whim at a Chicago auction in 2007 to Googling her and finding her obituary in 2009; from beginning a quest to learn who she was to representing her estate and making contemporary prints of her work in conjunction with Howard Greenberg Gallery. Finding Vivian Maier is singularly focused on Maloof and his relationship with the dead photographer; nowhere along the way does the film name anyone else who also bought and discovered Maier’s work at that same Chicago auction.

As it turns out, two people did: Ron Slattery and Randy Prow. According to the Independent, Prow sold his Maier collection in 2010 to a man named Jeffrey Goldstein, who has since gone on to befriend and collaborate with Maloof. “Maloof and Goldstein both sell posthumous prints from Maier’s negatives — and they both put their own signatures on the backs of these prints,” said photographer and professor Pamela Bannos in an interview earlier this month with Spolia magazine.

As for Slattery, he posted some of Maier’s images online even before Maloof, in 2008, writing at the time: “I don’t know much about her … I bought a ton of her stuff at a small auction. Part of what I got are 1200 rolls of her undeveloped film. They sit in boxes next to my desk. Everyday, I look at those boxes and wonder what kind of goodies are inside … ” In an interview with Gapers Block, Slattery explained that he and Maloof were in touch between 2007 and 2009, discussing Maier’s work and their discoveries, until he decided to sell a chunk of his collection to Maloof because he needed money to pay medical bills. Slattery still owns “several thousand vintage prints and an undisclosed amount of negatives and slides,” according to Bannos, but seems to have disappeared from the ‘official’ Maier story.

“The site [http://vivianmaierprints.com/] states that they are setting themselves up as the validators of Vivian’s work and I am worried they are trying to cut me out,” Slattery told Gapers Block in 2011. “I don’t want to be in the position to have to prove I have the real thing later when they all know I do now.” In conversation with the Independent last week, however, he seemed more accepting of the situation:

“I really don’t care who decides to be the champion of her work because frankly it doesn’t matter. Vivian Maier matters. We are in an age where the curators want to be stars, and often become via storytelling, but the bottom line is, it’s the artist who is the shining light. Vivian Maier is that light.”

Why does any of this matter? Because the fracturing and complicated case of Maier’s archive affects how we understand her and her work. Maier is no longer alive (nor does she have any descendants), which means the printing and presentation of her work and story are controlled almost entirely by the private collectors who own her effects — none of whom she knew, let alone chose to represent her.

“I feel conflicted about Maier’s archive in general,” said Pamela Bannos, who claims she’s been repeatedly denied access to study Maloof’s Maier collection. She continued:

This was a very private woman who chose not to share her personal life or her photography. That apparently is what has made her into a “mystery woman.” The selective editing of her work has perpetuated her mystery. After viewing more than 20,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, a different photographer emerged for me than the one first presented by John Maloof. I feel intensely uncomfortable with the way that he has presented her personal belongings alongside her photographic history — putting her shoes on display, and laying out her blouses in his movie, for example. I think he’s done a good job of transforming her into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows that model. I don’t know how any of that would fit into a traditional concept of an archive.

Bannos is working on a book, Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive, about Maier’s work and posthumous fame. There’s also another documentary out there, The Vivian Maier Mystery (originally aired on BBC 1 as Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?), which tells what you might call the other side of the story — or at least a slightly different one — by including interviews with Slattery, Bannos, and others. Maloof declined to participate.

Correction, 7/28: This article originally stated that Finding Vivian Maier does not mention that anyone else bought and discovered Maier’s work at the original Chicago auction. That was incorrect — the film does say that there were other buyers. It has been fixed.

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  • Barb

    Sounds like a great book in the making, if the right person takes it on.

  • Delilah

    Very interesting web. Maier has amazing work, look forward to the photos yet to be released!

  • Bettysnark

    Shocking guys that had nothing to do with her work but “discovered” her, sign the back of her photography. Typical.

    • James Roth

      And further shock when a documentary digs up “controversy” over the release/non-release of her work. OH NO IS IT ETHICAL? I need to blog this right now.

    • http://hanleybrand.com/ Peter Hanley

      The story is more interesting to me in terms of feminist critique – I note the controversy is about “[two men] setting themselves up as the validators of [a woman’s] work [with a third man] worried [he might be] cut.. out.” WTF?

  • Michael

    If the Howard Greenberg Gallery is involved, odds are quite strong shady dealings surround this “discovery.” A long and troubled history for this gallery and posthumous photographic prints.

  • sohughj

    If they actually gave a damn they’d donate the lot to an organization with the resources, skill, and experience to properly archive and curate it, like International Center of Photography for example. The way this whole thing is being handled reeks of ghoulish bottom feeding.

    • misstisab

      From what the producer of Maloof’s documentary said during a post-screening Q&A in Pasadena, a scholarship fund has been set up at SAIC for women photographers. How much money, for whom and how many, for how long, was not clear. The feminist critique of the situation, however, is clear as a bell. Further, this article doesn’t mention something else that the producer revealed: two brothers who were cared for by Maier, and cared for her as they could until her death (rent, food, clothes, storage spaces), originally participated then declined to be a part of Maloof’s documentary, citing distaste for the posthumous fame and fetishization of the very private Maier. What’s confusing here, too, is the sense I got during the Q&A that these brothers also sold the contents of Maier’s paid-up storage spaces, perhaps to the two anxious about being “cut out”. Messy business.

  • lippy

    nor does she *have* any descendants.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Fixed, thank you.

  • Paul Klein

    I found The Vivian Maier Mystery from the BBC to be a lot more balanced, less of a circus sideshow. It’s a little slim but at least it’s about Maier and not the people who are cashing in on her work. It’s really worth checking out: http://www.vivianmaiermysterymovie.com

  • jeffwithtwoels

    While we might well be concerned about the “fetishizing” of a dead artist, what is happening to Maier and her work is not unusual. Europe is full of small museums that include locks of the person’s hair, articles of clothing, eating utensils, etc. along side examples of their art. If the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had access to Vincent’s severed ear, you better believe it would be in a vitrine, swarmed daily by visitors.

  • Daphne

    I was fascinated and disturbed by the film. She was a fascinatingly complex person. I was very much disturbed though and left the theater feeling like I had done something wrong by watching the film.

  • Gareth

    He does mention that he brought other boxes of her film/prints from others that were at the same auction he was at. Its right there in the film.

  • jerry

    Goldstein does not sign the back of the prints. I own one. It is not signed on back or front. It is simply numbered on the left side of the front, underneath the image.

    Goldstein does not print them, he hires someone to print them in the darkroom. Maloof prints his images on an inkjet printer from scanned negatives.

  • skander

    Though it was long ago, I did pass Art History. Nobody talked about the diaspora of works by Van Gogh or Da Vinci as if they has a problem with the owners of their respective works. They were owned by different collectors or museums and it was understood that you had to pay to play when it came to access and research. What sour grapes to say Maloof is naught but an opportunist because he tried to put everything under one roof. And if Slattery is so adamant that it’s Ms. Maier that matters, why clamour for recognition?
    Silly.

    • sohughj

      Nobody? What rock have you been living under to be absolutely oblivious of the controversy of allowing private ownership of major works of art that are considered cultural heritage, especially when the vast majority of those owners are people who don’t necessarily know or appreciate anything about art, but collect for the sake of vanity, speculation, or greed?

      • Jeff Goldstein

        I think my post as been overlooked… Jeffrey Goldstein, collector

        • sohughj

          Actually, it hasn’t. I did look into the claims you make and discovered that both you and Maloof have claimed copyright ownership of Vivian Maier’s works. Now, if you were truly an artist as you claim to be, you would realize what disgusting behavior that is.

          First of all, the legality of your behavior is questionable. Copyright law states that copyright of unpublished works with a known author stays in place for 70 years after the death of the creator, which in Ms. Maier’s case would be the year 2079. But since she left no will or heirs, her property would then fall to the state of Illinois, where she died.

          What you and the other so-called “collectors” did was capitalize on an unfortunate circumstance (liquidation of her belongings due to unpaid storage fees) and instead of altruistically correcting the error for the greater good of the public, set out to profiteer instead, and that’s really what your row is ultimately about.

          If you or anyone else actually cared about her legacy as you claim to, you’d be collecting her work under one roof for the sole purpose of donation to Met, MoMA, ICP, Whitney or any number of other institutions that would make this work accessible and appreciable by the public at large.

          You can make all the claims you want. Your actions, as the saying goes, speak louder than words.

          This sounds like great material for an episode of “Storage Wars.” You know what I call the people on that show? Vultures.

          • skander

            Were you Vivian Maier, you’d be lost and forgotten in a state dumpster.

          • sohughj

            “Were you Vivian Maier, you’d be lost and forgotten in a state dumpster.”

            Almost, but not quite: I’d sooner have everything I’ve ever shot burned than to have my legacy sullied by a bunch of vultures. Burning it rather than putting it a state dumpster will ensure that it stays out of the hands of scavengers.

          • skander

            Telling. I think more of my own work.

          • Julia Gray
          • Kevin Purcell

            It’s true she doesn’t have descendents but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an heir to her estate i.e. the one that own’s her copyrights.

            Just because you have the physical object that doesn’t mean you can make prints. You need to have the rights to the images too. They’re a seperate part of intellectual property that is part of her estate.

            And in fact she does have an heir though it’s not been talked about a lot.

            It seems that Maloof has negotiated with the (not publicly known) owner of the estate to license the rights. Others that want to make prints will have to do the same (or infringe copyrights to her work).

            Blake Andrews has written about this …

            http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com/2014/05/more-thoughts-on-maier.html

  • sohughj

    “The Vivian Maier story is still unfolding…”

    Well of course it is. That way you can make the sequels “We Found Vivian Maier,” “Oops We Thought We Found Vivian Maier, “Yes We Really Found Vivian Maier This Time,” and “Oops Gotcha Ha Ha Still Working On Vivian Maier”… heck, Sly Stallone will be slugging away at 98 on Rocky 26 just to try to keep up with you.

  • Michael e. Stern

    …one of your earlier statements is incorrect, “nowhere along the way does the film mention that anyone else had
    also bought and discovered Maier’s work at that same Chicago auction.”

    In fact John Maloof mentions this very fact near the beginning of the film. Makes me wonder if the author of this post actually viewed the film before writing this self-serving piece. And try thinking outside conventional wisdom about what constitutes an archive. As a commercial photographer, I worked for years with folks at the Walt Disney archives. This place was filled with everything you can imagine: books, papers, plans, props, gifts, etc. A tradition archive? Who knows? Who cares? What matters is that the artifacts have been preserved for later generations…isn’t that the main purpose of an archive?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I did in fact see the film (I reviewed it for this site) and didn’t remember that happening, but I just spoke to the person I saw it with to confirm what you wrote, and I will now correct this piece accordingly. Thanks for that. As for this piece being “self-serving”…ha. Yes, because I accrue so much benefit from this. And as for “who cares?” I do.

  • Leif
  • wesleykimler

    Since Jeff Goldstein decided to reference my good friend and colleague Ed Paschke, I feel compelled to respond and set the record straight: as a fairly major figure in the art world here {(unlike Jeff) and, an artist who showed any number of times in important museum exhibitions and exhibitions Ed and I initiated, I believe is fair and accurate to say Jeff Goldstein -Ed’s studio neighbor had little if anything to do with Ed professionally until the time of Ed’s death. When that happened, suddenly Jeff was ALL OVER EVERYTHING..turning an artist’s demise’s into what in my opinion as evidenced here, became a career opportunity for himself. Not unlike the Vivian Maier complete with buzzards circling situation.

  • Jeffrey Goldstein

    Yawn, Wesley who?

  • Jeffrey Goldstein

    Oh wait, I know who you are, you’re the guy they call Lil” Weasel. Its funny, I don’t remember ever seeing you at Ed Paschke’s house for his Christmas and Thanksgiving events. Oh yeaa, that s right that was just his family and mine. I don’t remember ever seeing you even once in all the time I was in Ed’s studio over the period of 9 years. You know we had lunch quit often, I even assisted on a few of his paintings. Yup, Lil’ Weasel, side by side. I would have to look at my photos but I don’t think you are in any from the 4-5 trips that Ed and I took to Paris, nor in fact do I remember you at anytime I was with him.

    Ahhhh, the internet, what a great place to bully and mislead.

  • InsaneJane

    A shinning light? More like a beacon into the soul of humanity that could possibly save us from the brink of burying ourselves with the crap of our own making. Look at those faces and hearts the way that she did — it’s right there! There are no nameable socialites or beebs. She gives me an idea that maybe we can learn how to become people living daily lives again and getting back to things that really matter.

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