Vivian Maier

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BEGAN THE NEW YEAR WITH PHOTOS – specifically, the photos of Vivian Maier, in a show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It was a daddy-daughter date; my oldest is a huge fan of Maier, and has watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier on Netflix multiple times. I’d never seen Maier’s work outside of books or TV, so it seemed like a good reason for us to take the GO train west to the end of the line.

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The AGH show is subtitled Street Photographer – which seems a bit redundant since street photography was pretty much all that Maier did. It was basically most of the photos shot on her Rolleiflex that appeared in the 2011 book of Maier’s work – also called Vivian Maier: Street Photographer – plus a selection of the 35mm colour work she did in the ’60s and ’70s, and a room where eight of her rolls of 8mm film were projected in a loop.

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If you know or care about photography, Maier’s story is well-known by now. She worked most of her life as a nanny in New York City and Chicago, taking photos in her spare time and amassing a body of thousands of negatives that went unseen until they were discovered by John Maloof, a Chicago filmmaker and photographer, at an auction of the contents of one of Maier’s storage lockers in 2007.

Maloof knew the value of what he found, and managed to collect together most of Maier’s negatives and photos; he posted them online on a photo blog and on Flickr, and the reception to Maier’s work was overwhelming. It was obvious that these weren’t just snapshots by an eager amateur. Unfortunately Maloof’s Google searches for Maier only found a reference to her in 2009, just a few days after her obituary had been posted.

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“Had she made herself known she would have become a famous photographer,” said Mary Ellen Mark, while going through Maier’s work with Maloof in Finding Vivian Maier. But she didn’t. For some reason, Maier kept her work to herself for decades while working as a nanny and housekeeper for various families (including Phil Donahue’s) and hoarding tons of things besides film negatives – newspaper clippings, clothes, political memorabilia, bus transfers, mail, uncashed cheques, trash – as she moved from place to place.

The story of Maier’s rediscovery happened around the time I began my old blog. It resonated for me, much the way that the story of Charles Jones did fifteen years earlier – a British gardener whose masterful still life prints of fruit and vegetables were discovered in a trunk at an auction. (Jones’ glass negatives had been destroyed years earlier; his granddaughter recalls him using them to make cloches for young plants.) Even more than with Jones, I identified with Maier; I could imagine my own work languishing in storage boxes somewhere after I was gone, and it probably ended up spurring me to post my photos online.

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But the question of posterity is only something that becomes important to an artist after their death, when they can’t do anything about it. Reputation, on the other hand, is something only a living person would care about. Most of the people who knew her say that she wouldn’t have enjoyed the fame she has today when she was alive. She might have resented John Maloof and his efforts immensely. But she hoarded the raw material for a biography, including films and audio tapes and countless self-portraits, which gives the impression of someone fighting against time to preserve a record of themselves.

Apart from the obvious quality of Maier’s photography, that might be one of the things that’s made her story so fascinating – that someone who worked so hard at her art, who obviously understood the value and skill that it showed, would have hoarded it so zealously and shunned the pursuit of reputation. (The shot below, one of my favorites, is an example of how Maier transcends the comparisons that have been made with photographers like Robert Frank, Lisette Model or Diane Arbus.)

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There might not be any way of discovering more about Maier – a truly obscure person who has only accidentally been gifted with posterity – but there are still thousands of images that remain unseen by anyone but Maloof and the people who do his scanning and printing. There might be a Vivian Maier working today, but while Maier’s unwillingness to seek reputation when she was alive kept her from presenting her work to the gatekeepers of the analog world – dealers, agents, curators, editors, gallery owners and patrons – today’s Maier would probably find themselves lost amidst the hosepipe of images flooding every minute from Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, DeviantArt, 500px, VSCO and Smugmug.

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The Persistence of Fela

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Toronto, 1989
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Toronto, July 1989

THE SHOOT I DID WITH FELA KUTI NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO WAS SEEN BY ALMOST NOBODY until I published it on my old blog near the start of that project. Since then it’s taken on a life I couldn’t have imagined, either when I was begging the show’s promoter for a chance to photograph Fela, or on the winter day long after that, when I took the negatives from their files and started scanning them.

In the years those photos sat unseen in my files, Fela increased his profile internationally, continued his conflict with the Nigerian government, and died of complications from HIV – which did nothing to halt the spread of his fame and reputation. He was the subject of a Broadway musical and a documentary film before his manager, Rikki Stein, contacted me two years ago to ask about using my photos in a box set of his records, curated by Erykah Badu.

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I was happy to get my photos out in the world, especially in a full-sized LP box set, printed full bleed and across double page spreads. It seemed an auspicious way to launch my Fela portraits into the world after decades of obscurity (mine and the photos.) But I wasn’t quite prepared for what would happen once they were out there.

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Last summer my old friend Chris Buck told me that he’d seen a poster that used one of my Fela images all over the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He said he’d try to find them again and send me some photos of the posters, and a few days later they arrived in an e-mail.

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Najite & Olokun Prophecy are a Los Angeles band working in the Afrobeat tradition of Fela Kuti and his groups Africa 70 and Egypt 80, and they apparently took a couple of my Fela photos from the box set booklet and my blog as the inspiration for posters advertising a big summer gig in a neighbourhood in South LA. I suppose I could be mad about this unauthorized use of my intellectual property – it’s happened before, but at least a couple of those times the artist had the courtesy to ask me for permission.

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But on the whole, frankly, I’m rather less outraged than I probably should be. While the band’s appropriation of my shots isn’t strictly “fair use” as defined in copyright law, there’s part of me that’s pleased to see my Fela photos become part of the musician’s iconography, especially after they were effectively buried for so long.

I grew up looking at photographer’s portraits that defined the visual legacy of their famous subjects – think of Penn’s “cyclops” portrait of Pablo Picasso, Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, or Jerry Schatzberg’s photos of the newly electrified Bob Dylan. If my shots of Fela could somehow become a part of his visual legacy, there’s no way I couldn’t be pleased.

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What was even stranger was that, at around the time Chris told me about the posters in Los Angeles, my Fela shots were on their way to a most unexpected place. Last summer I was contacted by Cassie Williams, the clearance coordinator for the CW/Netflix reboot of Dynasty, the hugely popular ’80s primetime soap, which was filming in Atlanta.

“This season we’re introducing Club Colby – an upscale jazz club owned by the Colby family,” she wrote in an email. “We’d really like to use the below Fela Kuti image as set decoration for the club. The club is being built as a permanent set, so this image would be used as background set dressing in multiple episodes.”

In the end, Cassie and Andrew Huddleston, the art department coordinator on Dynasty, licensed the use of four of my Fela shots for the Club Colby set. I can only imagine the motivation for their choice of my shots – the Colbys have been recast as African American for the reboot, so perhaps they’re meant to be some sort of political or cultural statement by the Colby family.

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The season two episodes with scenes taking place in Club Colby have been airing this fall, and a week ago Andrew was nice enough to send me snapshots of the standing set with my photos. If you have sharp eyes, you might catch them in the background of a few shots of the show. They’re certainly in a place where I would never have imagined them appearing. I think Fela might have been just as surprised.

There’s another place where my Fela shots will be appearing in the new year, but I don’t think I’m at liberty to talk about that yet. Stay tuned.

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Portfolio

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THIS IS MY OLD PORTFOLIO. Or rather, this is the shipping case that I’d use to send my old portfolio by courier, mostly to out of town clients. The last FedEx shipping form in the plastic envelope on the front is from a design company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I haven’t a clue who they were – probably a firm that produced an in-flight magazine for an airline, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I don’t think I got any work from them.

Below is the leather portfolio case I’d use to carry my portfolio to clients here in town. I think my sister found it for me in an estate sale or antique auction somewhere. It might not have been the slickest container for my work, but I thought it summed me up rather nicely, and made a nice introduction to whomever might have responded to its well-worn, patinated exterior and considered hiring the person who’d have put their work in such a thing.

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I used to agonize about my portfolio. The pages below are from that last portfolio – my third or fourth, I think, and the last one that I used to sell myself at the end of the ’90s. It would take me years to update my book, as I’d pore over my work, change layouts, and then decide that I had to wait to shoot something new to create just the right sequence. Because every time I showed my portfolio to anyone it felt like a make-or-break situation – an opportunity that couldn’t be squandered, since they came around so rarely.

I hated showing my portfolio. It wasn’t just the idea of being judged, though that was definitely part of it, as much as knowing that I was the supplicant in an unequal relationship. I could sweat blood over my book, only to have some assistant to the photo editor flip through it at speed, eager to get through the pile of books left with the receptionist on drop-off day. A form rejection letter – some people saved them; I couldn’t – would be your only feedback. Sometimes you wouldn’t even get that.

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I particularly hated showing my portfolio here in town. When I started out, there would be “go-sees” with photo editors or art directors, sitting on one side of a desk or standing to the side in a cluttered layout room while they (silently, too often) went through your book. Those ended at some point in the early ’90s, and from then on it was “drop off days” – leaving your portfolio with a cover letter and a business card or promo mailer with the receptionist, then picking it up a day or two later. I can’t honestly say which one was worse.

Showing work in New York City always felt much more rewarding. Maybe it was because they knew you’d traveled there, but you’d have a small crowd looking at your book – whoever was in the layout office at the time – and some of them might even ask questions about the shoots. Even if they couldn’t use you, someone might say they had a friend at another magazine – they’d make a phone call and you’d jump into a cab. I always got more work after showing in NYC, though the hard part was maintaining the relationship at a distance, and hoping that someone would pass through Toronto who they couldn’t, for some inconceivable reason, have shot in New York.

Sometimes you’d ask another photographer if you could see their portfolio. I remember Michael Lavine showing me a huge, heavy, padded and embossed case with sides that folded down, each photo mounted on a thick board with felt backing. I remember thinking it must have cost a fortune to ship, and knew that with my tight overhead I’d never be able to afford such a lavish presentation. All of my portfolios were strictly off the shelf – black books with clear plastic pages into which you’d slip the 11×14 inch prints you’d laboured over in the darkroom for hours or even days.

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I’ve been thinking about my old portfolios again because, after a painful period of learning to use Adobe’s Portfolio software, I’ve finally updated my own online portfolio. The previous one was at least fifteen years old, wildly out of date and rather ugly, built as it was just after the era of the dial-up modem. The new one is … simple. Off the shelf, by design. I am a simple man, and while I am still in that supplicant position, it’s been a long time since I felt like it was a crucial, pivotal moment every time anyone looked at my work. Part of that is the internet; part of it is just getting older, and caring less.

I don’t know if anyone actually sends around physical portfolios any more. I hear it still happens, though promotional mailing campaigns are a bigger deal. I’d have a better idea about all of this stuff if I had an agent, but I never have, and suspect I never will. In any case, I have just spent over four years putting up hundreds of my old photos with essays explaining them all. I am still terrible at selling myself, but if anyone is curious about the work I’ve been doing for over three decades, they can learn far more about it all now than when it was represented by a generic black portfolio that spent most of its time sitting in a case next to my desk.

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On The Air

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AFTER THIRTY YEARS OF NEVER TALKING ABOUT MY WORK I’ve been spending a lot of time lately discussing my old blog and my photos. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it, but it’s still pretty weird. I seem to have moved on from the print phase of self-promotion to the verbal one, which means I’ve been inflicting my voice on you. Sorry for that.

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With B&H Podcast host Allan Weitz and Julie Grahame

A couple of weeks ago I flew to New York City for a day to appear on the B&H Podcast with photo curator and archivist Julie Grahame. Julie runs the estate and website for legendary Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh – you probably know his work, even if you’re not Canadian and didn’t see his portraits all the time growing up – and had a lot of wisdom about managing your public profile as a photographer.

Producer John Harris and host Allan Weitz did a great job of keeping the conversation moving (and keeping me on topic.) We talked for over an hour but the show was edited very tightly, I think, though the segment where Julie thought I was saying “bi-curious” when I was talking about bike couriers unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor. (Must have been my Canadian accent.)

To listen to the show, go here on the podcast website, or listen to it on iTunes here or here on Libsyn.

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With Richard Crouse, Jon Brooks and Anthony Lemke. I really need to change my clothes.

Last week I had the opportunity to wag my jowls a bit more on Richard Crouse’s AM 1010 radio show, alongside singer/songwriter Jon Brooks and actor Anthony Lemke. I’ve known Richard for many years, mostly seeing him at movie screenings back when I did my time as a movie critic, and he runs a nice, loose show where his guests can actually get past talking points – a rarity on radio and TV these days, I can say from experience.

We got on to the topic of failure – a favorite subject of mine – as a constructive, even creatively necessary thing. I plugged my books. It was all very pleasant. Go here to listen to the show.

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Interview with A Photo Editor

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I TALKED ABOUT MY OLD BLOG, MY NEW WORK, AND THIRTY YEARS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER with Heidi Volpe at A Photo Editor last week, and the interview was published yesterday.  I’m still finding it odd to realize that I look like a bit of a veteran at this stage in my career, but I suppose it’s something I have to learn to accept. In any case, here’s an excerpt of our discussion:

What did you see in them now that you didn’t see then?

I always second-guessed myself when choosing work – I had a hard time finding the best shot, or I’d go for the most obvious, flattering one as opposed to the interesting one buried further down. With years of distance it became easier to find the interesting frames. Also, my skill with Photoshop far exceeds my skill in the darkroom, so I was finally able to produce finished images much closer to what I had in mind when I shot them twenty years ago, like my portraits of Bjork and Patti Smith. Then there are the shoots that I dismissed as flops, or ones from periods of my life that I didn’t recall fondly. I really undersold my portrait work at Metro in the 2000s; it turned out to be much better than I remembered.

I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t like talking about myself. After three decades of relative obscurity, it’s a bit of a thrill, and I’m not tired of it yet. In any case, hopefully it’ll sell some books. Speaking of which…

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