A Visionary Artist After The Fact

Reviewing a documentary about Vivian Maier, the 20th-century Chicago street photographer whose work was only discovered after her death in 2009, Noah Berlatsky questions Maier’s posthumous incorporation into the institutional art world:

“People identify with her; they love the story, and then they love the work,” gallery owner Steven Kasher says in The Vivian Maier Mystery, and Kasher’s formulation— “they love the story, and then they love the work”—can mean that buyers love both story and work. But it might also mean that they love the story first, and then love the work because of the story. If that’s the case, people may be paying thousands of dollars not for a particularly striking composition, but for a chance to be part of Maier’s odd narrative—to participate in the story of the secret, humble genius, now revealed. …

My discomfort with the way Maier’s work is presented and used in the film and the art world is in no way a condemnation of the artist herself. She, after all, had no part in her own marketing, and certainly never planned for her images to be seen or lauded. The voice-over towards the end of the film insists that “her compulsion to take pictures was her life,” but that’s the film’s assessment, not hers. It’s a story the film has imposed upon her, for its own purposes. Watching the movie, you get the uncomfortable feeling that a whole lot of people want Vivian Maier’s life to be her pictures so that, in owning or looking at them, both can be consumed.