A few months ago, the name most associated with the discovery of photographer Vivian Maier was John Maloof. Maker of the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier, Maloof is said to own between 80–90% of known work by the eccentric nanny-cum-artist. But a few weeks ago, when the film premiered in the UK, a story emerged that many of us had never heard: Maloof may not have been the first to discover Maier, and although he owns the majority of her work, he’s not the only person making prints of her negatives. Things were less tidy, more fractured than they’d seemed.
After I published my article about the state of Maier’s estate, someone mentioned in it, Jeffrey Goldstein, contacted me. Goldstein, a collector and artist himself, says he owns about 20,000 of Maier’s images and, like, Maloof, makes and sells prints of her work. (These are called the Jeffrey Goldstein and Maloof Collections.) Goldstein agreed to speak with me about some of the concerns raised in my previous post — including the handling of Maier’s artworks and story, as well as the ethics of making posthumous prints from her original negatives. During our conversation, Goldstein explained his reasons and process for printing Maier’s work, illuminated just how fractured Maier’s archive is, and revealed that — contrary to what’s been previously reported — the mysterious woman who died alone does have a living heir.
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Jillian Steinhauer: How did you come to find Vivian Maier’s work?
Jeffrey Goldstein: Well, I received 57 photographs from Ron Slattery, and this was, you know, very early on — this was in lieu of some funds that he owed me. And that got me hooked. And then about a year later, through Ron Slattery as an intermediary, Randy Prow was interested in selling his collection.
JS: And when was this?
JG: It seems so long ago, but this was actually as recent as 2010, the first purchase I made from Randy.
JS: Did you make multiple purchases from him?
JG: Yes, we made three. The second one was almost 30 days to the date of the first one, and then the third one was sometime later, because the price had increased substantially. I actually went in halves with John Maloof on the purchase.
JS: That brings up naturally the question of what your relationship is with Maloof, and how you came to know him — did you find him because he also owns Maier’s work?
JG: Well, actually, I knew his brother, previous to knowing John. There’s this flea market I go to — it’s sort of my Sunday religious experience. I’ve been going for years and years; it’s a pretty interesting and eclectic crowd. So, through the rumor mill I started hearing about this photographer Vivian Maier and then John Maloof. And then eventually I met John out there. As he was working on his collection and I started acquiring material, we started having more and more interactions with one another.
JS: And you guys are the two principle owners of her material, right? Are you in contact a lot? Do you have a good relationship?
JG: I think we have a good relationship on the parts that we need to have the relationship with. My understanding is that Howard Greenberg [Gallery] basically has control of John’s collection so far as decision making, so that’s where that part of the collection hangs. And then I handle this part of the collection really almost seven days a week.
JS: And what do you do?
JG: It’s really limited, and people don’t seem to quite understand this. There’s only two things we do: we produce these edition silver gelatin prints, and we help stage exhibitions. We have really limited involvement and limited input. Our job is basically supplying the material, information, and imagery. Our activities are really pretty simple and defined.
JS: It sounds almost as if you’re acting as if you were her estate.
JG: I’m acting as an advocate for someone who I think is an incredible artist and setting up a structure to get her work out there in what I feel is the most professional manner. We haven’t had any complaints as far as to the ethics of how we handle the printmaking process or the quality of the prints, and that’s really all I care about. As long as we are producing something that we feel is worthy and complimentary towards the artist, then I think we are doing a good job.
JS: It’s interesting that you say you’re only concerned with the ethics of how you make the prints. People have raised the question of whether it’s ethical to make these prints at all because she isn’t alive and didn’t leave any instructions. What do you think about that?
JG: My sense is, we have no instructions and so we rely on the aesthetics of the time when the film was shot. Twelve by twelve was the exhibition size of the time — you know, nowadays that would be considered on the small side, because equipment has made it such that we can make much larger prints, but we don’t. We always stay first-generation negative; we have the option of converting to digital formats and even creating new negatives or digital prints, which we don’t do. We don’t rewash the negatives. If there’s dust on the negative and it won’t come off with air, we actually print the dust particles and then, on the prints themselves, it’s hand-spotted and hand-etched.
JS: So, you don’t have ethical qualms about making prints as long as you stick to these sort of rules you’ve created.
JG: Yes. As far as like the ethical morality of it, I would say, every artist has the responsibility of what they do and don’t do with their work. Either you can edit your body of work — you can make arrangements as you get older to do something with it — or, if you don’t, you leave it to the whims of the world, which is why this and many discoveries take place. If it gets to the point where you feel there’s an invasion of privacy that’s more important than the bigger good of what people may receive from the material, that’s a different question. My feeling is if the material has a positive and inspirational purpose, it serves a much better good being made available to the public.
JS: In John Maloof’s film Finding Vivian Maier, he does, as has been claimed, sign the back of his Maier prints. Do you have the same practice?
JG: I do. The thing is, it’s not a signature that it’s my print; we sign it as the printers. This is for the sake of the provenance. The two printers sign it: Sandy [Steinbrecher] and Ron [Gordon]. There’s a stamp that identifies it to be part of the collection. I sign it because that signature is sort of a quality control. If I’m signing it, that means I stand behind it 100%. It’s almost like an inspection note.
In lithography and etching, which I have been collecting for decades and decades, there’s books literally written on how to approach the signature numbering of prints. In photography it is all over the board. We even had this discussion with somebody from Sotheby’s on the ethics of what kind of information should be placed on the front. I don’t want to put a stamp with her name on it, because that could be a bit confusing. I can’t write her name on it, because that would certainly be confusing. So, on the front side, the only thing that’s written there is the edition number.
JS: How do you decide how many prints to make in an edition?
JG: Fifteen is in some ways the lower end of an industry standard. Usually you’ll see artists make in between 15 to 25, 15 to 30. So, this idea of exclusivity — I mean, this kind of goes back to the fact that in order to do this, money has to be made. That’s how it works. You have professional printers; they have to be paid. You have people working on computers; they have to be paid. You can’t make anything of real quality without a monetary tag being put on this. The idea was, these prints are the fuel to keep this project moving forward.
JS: Right, but it’s also like a chicken-or-the-egg thing: you’re printing the prints so you can make money to print more prints. Which makes sense but … is also circular.
JG: I’ll give you a couple of interesting tidbits so people can get an idea. We have a designated office space for the project — it’s like 1,400 square feet. We have two people in there working now, and they have two printers. I had to pick up an entertainment attorney, intellectual property attorney, accountant, corporate accompanied insurance, insurance for transportation, custom crating, custom packing. Computer equipment, scanners. So, the average daily cost five days a week to run that office space runs from $800 to $1,000.
JS: How much does an average Maier print sell for?
JG: An average print sells right now for a little over $2,000. The galleries [where the prints are shown] take half of that, so it’s a 50/50 split. So, basically, we need to sell on average a print a day to keep this project and this office going. I’m not salaried. I work for the sweat equity of the collection.
JS: It sounds like you’re doing it as best you can, but some people are concerned about her not having any descendants or anyone to speak on behalf of her.
JG: We did go through the ways the laws dictate legally binding search and found a descendant, and went through the process of getting to that descendant so copyright could be secured. We followed this by the law with great time and expense. And today no one has really given me an idea that I can embrace as far as what else or how else to do this besides giving it away to an institution, but I have yet to hear of an institution that I think can do what we’re doing. If you think about a donation to a museum — say they put on a show, how many prints can they show? 100–150 maybe. Then they’re not going to show this artist again for fix or six years. In another five or six years there’s, say, 150 images shown then, another five years, another 150 images. So, in the course of a decade, you let the public see 450 images.
JS: Some people have said Maier’s photos qualify as orphaned works, but you’re saying there’s a descendant?
JG: There’s a descendant — to be orphaned means no heirs. There is an heir in the lineage. Then there’s the complication, too, where French lineage laws are different from the US. So, we had to tackle that.
JS: The descendant is French?
JG: I’m in a non-disclosure [agreement] with the French heir and John [Maloof]. So I’m really limited to what I can say, and part of that is the request of the heir.
JS: Interesting. But she didn’t have kids?
JG: No, she didn’t have kids. There’s, you know, a family tree, so obviously there’s many branches.
JS: Going back to your point about institutions: have you approached any? John Maloof is working with a gallery now — is that something you’re interested in? I know you were saying that less work would get out there, but I think you could make the case the other way, that there would more study of her work and scholarship.
JG: If this ended up in the hands of an institution, which I would like to see, I think the institution has to be a foundation and not an existing museum. Because then she becomes just one of thousands of others, and that’s where the problem comes in. I wouldn’t donate the material to a museum right now because I think she would get buried pretty quickly. Because what people also forget is there’s a money aspect for these museums. The museum is going to be very limited in what they’re going to do as far as time and research, because it has to be warranted. A foundation I think would be great. My preference would be obviously here in Chicago. My ideal world — all these collections would come back together and be housed in Chicago in a foundation-type set-up.
JS: How many people own Maier’s work overall — at least the work that we know about?
JG: Well, as far as I’m aware, there’s a woman in Toronto — she has 30 negatives, and I heard they’re absolutely stunning. There’s a fellow out of Montreal — he has 60 movies. Allan Sekula has some material; the Ginsbergs, the family that Vivian Maier lived with the longest, have material that John gave them. John donated material to the town [that Maier was from], Saint-Julien, in the Alps of France. John has material, Ron Slattery has material, and I would venture to say that there’s probably a couple other people out there that have material and don’t even know — for instance, this fellow [in Montreal] just found that he’s been sitting on movies since ’08.
JS: That’s a lot of people. I didn’t realize quite how scattered it is. That makes me curious about Finding Vivian Maier, because John doesn’t mention a single other collector by name in that film. Were you involved with the film at all? Did you know about it? Did you want to be in it?
JG: I knew about the film, and its John’s film — he has artistic license. Everyone is sort of free to do what they wish with it, and he had his own specific mission. I try to be really respectful of each and everybody who has any kind of art collection. The only thing that I would find troublesome is anybody who has a collection and is not properly archiving it. We’ve archived and digitized our material and are presently studying it. That’s part of what I feel is our responsibility. The issue is for people to do research on the material and forget about the soap opera of everybody else. I find that to be distracting from the work and the artist.
JS: I’m inclined to agree, but I also think these narratives are fascinating and tell us a lot about how people respond to things.
JG: Somewhere in this matrix I feel there is a fascinating story, but I think it’s going to be some years in the making.