One of the vloggers that I regularly follow is Ted Forbes, the creator of “The Art of Photography” Youtube channel. He is a welcome alternative among all nerdy, pixel-peeping camera and lens technology focused voices there, as he actually is discussing photography as an art form.
One of Ted’a videos that I watched during this weekend was discussing Vivian Maier. This was originally published already six years ago, in March 2014, but remains interesting for reasons relating to Maier, Forbes, and to several questions of photography and as art more generally.
While listening to Ted talk about Vivian Maier’s work, it soon becomes clear that he is in a way struggling here – trying to be polite and repeatedly acknowledge the skill and significance of this self-educated, amateur photographer’s work, while also suggesting that there are reasons why he does not place Maier particularly high in his canon of great photography artists. These fundamental and underlying reasons are nowhere very explitly stated aloud in this video, though.
My interpretation is that there are two main reasons behind the hesitation of Ted Forbes – and probably many other art professionals who have somewhat similar backgrounds as Ted has. As listed in his short online cv, Ted Forbes has been educated in the Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the University of North Texas, and he has also spent several years as a professor at Brookhaven College, and as the Head of Digital Media at the Dallas Museum of Art, among other things. His perspective is thus not only coming from a photography aficionado, but one who has been educated in the history and practice of the arts, and who has long served both as an art educator and a gatekeeper for an art institution.
Vivian Maier is an interesting borderline case for anyone holding up the more “serious” and professional, institutional perspective into arts, since she never aimed to display her photos in art galleries, or anywhere else, publicly, and kept her practice as a secret to herself alone. It was only after her death, when certain collectors (most notably John Maloof from Chicago) bought her negatives from an auction, and started publishing them, first online, then in exhibitions and printed art books.
The first hesitancy about the photography of Vivian Maier as works of art (as expressed by Ted Forbes) relate to the fact that Maier herself had not edited and organised the photo negatives into prints, exhibitions and books herself. There is a subtle undertone of authorial intention in play here: if the person taking the photos did not conceive her work as (institutional) art, and did not complete the necessary steps involved in submitting and getting accepted as a published artist, then it is questionnable whether the photos in question are indeed art. There is sort of “other half” missing: the final process of selecting, editing and filtering the abundant raw materials (captured in estimated 150,000 surviving negatives) into actual artistic ‘oeuvre’ – cohesive vision and flow of expression as a practicing artist.
The other question mark implied by Ted Forbes’s video review is sort of extension of the first one. He repeatedly says that while he acknowledges Vivian Maier as a talented photographer (though probably into the category of “talented amateur”, rather than a “proper photography artist”), he is putting a lot of doubt over the expertise and intentions of collectors (John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein are explicitly mentioned), and while he tries to put it nicely, he evokes questions about non-professional, non-talented, non-artistic people having produced the “Vivian Maier as great photography artist” as a phenomenon by making sensationalist claims for maximizing publicity and their opportunities for commercial exploitation.
I have zero role these days in official, institutional art world (just to disclose, I used to study art history, among other subjects, and worked for an art museum in Tampere, during my student years). So, I do not take any stand in the debate about the status of Vivian Maier as a proper artist and the artistic value of her work. There are many art professionals and critics who have taken a more positive stance towards Vivian Maier’s work than Ted Forbes, though. It was also interesting to compare the Vivian Maier video to another one which was also dedicated to posthumous reconsideration or “rediscovery” of a photographer’s work – in this case that of Daan Hansen, an enthusiast photographer / photo hobbyist from Utrecht, who died in 2013, but whose work was published in a large-format, self-published book just before his death. In this case, Ted Forbes is in his video openly emotional and enthusiastic about the range, diversity and value of Daan’s work, even while it is obvious that (somewhat similarly to Vivian Maier), not all of Hansen’s photos are of similar artistic quality. Ted is of course also honest that Daan being both an online and offline friend of his, no doubt somehow affects his reactions to seeing Daan’s published work after his death.
One could perhaps conclude, that for people who operate within, or at some of the multiple frameworks of “art world”, the question of how something becomes valued and valuable as “art” is not a simple one. The person and personal circumstances of the artist affect deeply the perception of their work – even decades after “Biographic Fallacy”, or “Death of the Author” were first introduced into the art criticism. Also, the conditions and processes of publishing and displaying of something as art, do play an important part, as some of these kinds of processes are more prone to adding “authenticity” and value into works of art, whereas others can appear questionable and lead into overall negatively tilted evaluation – as seems to have happened for Vivian Maier, at least to a certain degree, in eyes of a critic like Ted Forbes.