Not For My Xmas Present!

I won’t be rushing out to buy a copy of  Vivian Maier: Street Photographer which, according to Amazon will be available from 8 Dec, published by Powerhouse Books as a 128 page hardcover (ISBN-10: 1576875776 ISBN-13: 978-1576875773) at the pre-order price of £24.64. It’s cheaper in the US, and the Amazon page includes a one minute video which exposes the book and around twenty of her pictures, and makes very clear why I think the hype around her is unjustified.

Make no mistake, Maier was a good photographer. A very good eye who picked up stuff from all sorts of guys and made her own take of it. You can see in the video and the half a dozen images on the web site that she has learnt well from Walker Evans, from Lisette Model, from Lee Friedlander, from Henri Cartier-Bresson from Harry Callaghan and from others. What you don’t see, despite the several self-portraits, is any clue as to who Maier herself was as an artist.

It says in the text that she took over 100,000 photographs in a period from the 1950s to the 1990s, though overwhelmingly I think her work shows its 1930s roots. 100,000 over 40 years is a relatively modest output and not unusual for the keen amateur that she was, at 2,500 pictures a year, it works out at around 50 a week. It’s hard also to know how much of the back-story is true. Did she show her work to no-one, or was it that the people in Chicago she did show her work to didn’t find it of particular interest.

Mike Johnston on The Online Photographer seems considerably more convinced of the book’s worth than me. It seems a pleasant enough volume, but certainly nothing to get excited about, and I sincerely hope nobody buys me it for Christmas, though I’m sure there will be considerable media hype and many photographers are likely to find a copy jammed in their stocking. Please, please not for me.

There are obviously others who disagree with my verdict on her, and the featured comment by Sherwood McLernon says “I think of it as the book that I had hoped The Americans by Robert Frank would have been, but wasn’t.” which must deserve some kind of award.

I don’t know where McLernon was sitting waiting for the publication of ‘The Americans’ in  1958. Maier had hardly started in photography when Frank took 2 years and around 28,000 images to make the work in 1955-7. Published first in France, where Robert Delpire put his future with the family firm on the line to get it in print, it shocked the photography world, or at least those who saw it, as most of the reviews were extremely negative. Wikipedia quotes Popular Photography as deriding his images as “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.

The Americans is in no way a perfect book, but it became a seminal book, although it remains in some respects a difficult book. Maier’s work (both in the show and on the various web sites) is safe and easy to assimilate. If I wanted one word to describe it, I think “anodyne” would do nicely, whereas for Frank it would be “iconoclastic.” The mention of Frank is however interesting, as looking at her work in the gallery this summer, one thought that came to me was that despite her obvious talent and facility, she had never really got to grips with his work.

If you are looking for a present for a photographer with any interest in street photography and you find they haven’t got a copy of ‘The Americans’ then I suggest you buy that rather than this book. Maier’s work is easy listening while Frank’s remains challenging, even after I’ve known it since the 1970s when I was getting into the medium.

If you are looking for a present for a photographer with any interest in street photography and you find they haven’t got a copy of ‘The Americans’ then I suggest you buy that rather than this book. Maier’s work is easy listening while Frank’s is still challenging.

You might also want to look at Martin Parr’s pick of the best books of the decade, made for the PhotoIreland Festival in the Summer. Perhaps among a few of his choices I might endorse is John Gossage’s  Berlin in the Time of the Wall – you can see a selection of the pictures at the Stephen Daiter Gallery, but even at the reduced price of $132 it’s a little expensive for my relatives.

Perhaps at some time I’ll try and write more seriously about my own picks of recent photography books, and I have another of my own Blurb publications arriving shortly.

One Response to “Not For My Xmas Present!”

  1. ChrisL says:

    Maybe steep, certainly at list price, but my goodness it is value. Be warned it is large and heavy but not packed accordingly by Amazon, mine was OK others were not, and not that robust when handled but worth every penny. Gossage’s “The Pond” is also affordable now it is in reprint if you want to recommend another “challenge” by that photographer and I do.

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