I went to an art event tonight (the night of originally starting this post) about what may sound like a hypothetical situation. For those who know the story, below will be a super summarized recap. I will state that much of what I observed left me uneasy and I of course came straight to medium to…. spew what may be half thought out concepts and straw built opinions.

The Story: A man was buying auction boxes and purchased one full of developed film… to source for a history book he was writing. He scanned some and thought there were some decent photos included, but admittedly had no background in art. He decided to share it online to see what other people thought. It went semi viral and he, through research, found out that there were many more boxes of this person’s photos… that added up to over a 150,000 pictures. The creator of the work has since passed, but some things we do know are that she was most likely mentally ill, that she was very secretive, and she hadn’t shown the work herself. The man has since bought 90% of the known work and has begun showing it in galleries and has even attempted to show it in large institutions such as MoMa, which turned him away. The man created a documentary, started selling prints of the work, and continued this mission of showing the work as much as possible.

photos taken from www.vivianmaier.com

I have 2 issues with what I learned today. The first being what rights does anyone have to show work the creator never showed and to profit from it and the second being are these photos art in the first place?

Does he have the right? My gut immediately said no and after obsessing over these ideas I believe I still consider it wrong. The documentary not only went into this woman’s life and showed that she had some mental issues, but also that she was so secretive she gave different backgrounds to different people and even put on a French accent, despite being born in NYC. What I would like to know is if you believe artists have any rights to their work after they die or if once you die it’s free to use to whom ever gets their hands on it? To put it a different way, does one’s actions and apparent intent for the work matter?

My other big concern with this work is that the majority of what is pushing it out into public spaces is the efforts of the man who has the most to gain financially by it being popular. The man who has invest money in buying the film and negatives, pays people to process it, and pays people to print it is also the man who made what could be seen as very slanted documentary. He has created a story that says “this woman’s work needs to be seen and the big-bad institutions won’t recognize it”, but I sit here and wonder is he only putting this work in public view so he can retire young and museums like MoMa see that.

Are these photos art? So if you accept that she is dead and who cares what we are doing with it… do you also believe it belongs in museums and galleries? One major factor I take into consideration before calling something art, when it could simply be decor, is what is it’s intention. We know she didn’t show it and I believe there are no known writings to why she created it or thoughts behind the photos, so what’s their point? I lean towards the thought she was a compulsive photo taker and perhaps the space created when looking through a lens was easier for her to understand, than when looking at her surroundings without that barrier. I do not believe the work in anyway was made to get people to reflect or reconsider their pre-existing thoughts and perhaps biases towards the subjects captured. With that in mind I see it as decor or a series of ornaments, which is in no way a negative, but it is different than calling something art.

One thing I’ve heard from friends and even folks walking around the gallery is that “these photos are cool” or “this is really beautiful”, but I don’t think anyone is impacted more deeply than this superficial level of temporary entertainment. One example I would like to make, that was included in the documentary, was a self portrait in a bathroom. It’s a cool photo and captures the era quiet well, but does that mean if someone digs up an iphone in 30 years and finds thousands of bathroom selfies they should make a show of it? I don’t believe the example on the right is“art” so why would I believe that this work by Vivian Maier is and in turn deserves the attention it’s receiving.



This got quite long, but if you made it this far I would love to start a dialogue on these questions. So feel free to DM me or just @ me on twitter. Here is the link to the documentary for those wanting to learn more.

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