Would Vivian Maier’s Work Stand Own Its Own Without the Story?

I finally watched “Finding Vivian Maier” after getting recommendations from numerous friends. I agree with one of the people interviewed in the film who said her story is more interesting than her work. In fact, because the story of the discovery is so romantic—a perfect Hollywood story—that it’s hard to look at her work on its own merits. The story distorts the work. A question I have is: Would she have succeeded as an artist without that story? That is, what if she tried to show her work? Would it have stood on its own without the story?

It’s ironic in that the reason the story is so romantic is because it is about artwork having its own merits without a self-promoting and self-aggrandizing artist. Especially in today’s society where nothing seems authentic, we crave for stories of authenticity. But it’s a catch-22 situation. If she had promoted her own work, her work would have to win the audience without this romantic story. Would she have succeeded? I have my doubts. I believe there have been countless photographers of her caliber we haven’t heard of. If you take a hundred thousand photos, some of them will, of course, be good. We are only seeing a small fraction of her work. Curating your own work is a crucial part of being a photographer/artist. Just as photographers must choose what to take pictures of, they also need to select which photos to show. That is a critical part of the art of photography especially in our postmodern era where readymades have artistic value. Maier did not do that.

The director, John Maloof, I think, is a great entrepreneur. He made a very risky investment in Maier’s work. He knew how to negotiate, tell the story, market, and monetize it. In a way, Vivian Maier is his startup.