Where Did She Fail?
1. Little To No Editing & Printing: She appears not have seriously edited her work. With relatively few quality prints, there was no ‘core work’ left behind. This means that she would not have been able to present her work and herself to other people in a meaningful and insightful way. Prints are much easier to drawn together into collections than negatives, besides, the print is the final expression and we don’t know much about hers. Without prints, her ability to understand her own work would have been inhibited too. I’ve spent years staring at negatives on light boxes and its not the same as looking at prints. Lesson: Edit your work. Arrange it into series, projects or themes. Be brutal. Learn from the failures as much as from the successful images. Push the weak work to the back and let the best of what you have accomplished do the talking. Inspired by what you’ve done well, you’ll be driven to do even better. Make the best prints you can from your best images, so that you have some sort of finality (even if it changes later). Even in this electronic age, I don’t think anything beats seeing prints. Had Maier had top quality prints to show others (her own printing is said to have been relatively poor), her talent may have been spotted and pushed forwards. Plenty of photographers are introverted and not sales types. The lack of self-promotion, IMHO, says nothing of Maiers desire to see her work seen by others and we will never know for sure.
2. Modest, Private and Disconnected: While is it not clear, there is no evidence that she really worked her photography into her outer life. She was reclusive and extremely private, perhaps ‘self-effacing’ would be a good description. That inner confidence that is in my view easy to see in her photographs, did not make it to the outside. She did not network. She appears not to have to have had friends within photography. She did not ‘put herself out there’. The end result is that everything occurred in a vacuum. How might she have developed had she been engaged with other talented photographers? What would have happened had she met the right editor, patron or critic? She might have been twice the photographer she was and well-known across the globe. Wingrand, Frank and Arbus might have regarded her as the preeminent photographer of the era. Lessons:
Get out there and shoot, then get out there and network. Meet like minded people. Find mentors. Be a mentor to someone who needs your guidance. You will reframe your work or adjust your approach every time you talk to someone. You will edit and tighten up your thinking as a result. Back in 2011, some of my Afghanistan work was seen by portrait photographer Alistair Morrison, while it was being printed by master printer Robin Bell in London. This resulted in me being invited to take part in this charity event, my work being shown here and auctioned off at a prestigious event, therefore ending up in the private collection of someone famous. I hope you see why I am bringing this up and its not to toot my own horn. There are wonderful people out there who will help you out, but they can’t if you are invisible.
Be bold and show your work to even the harshest critics (assuming they are actually objective) and take the knocks on the chin. Pick yourself up, take on the lessons and move on a step. Do not be embarrassed by recognition any more than you should be deterred by criticism. Everyone gets criticised. Henri Cartier-Bresson is rubbish (some say)! Ansel Adams was ‘rigid’ and produced ‘soulless work’ say others. Criticism is par for the course, so allow yourself to feel pleased by your successes. But make sure you are doing this in the real world. Facebook, other social media and forums can be great places for feedback, but they can also be the worst, with everyone patting everyone else on the back. If you want to really grow, solicit feedback from much more ‘to the bone’ critics. This can be done on forums too. Look to see whose work and opinions you admire and send them a message asking for an opinion. Ask the community for honest feedback so you can grow and make it clear you are not after a ‘thumbs up’. Get the know the best photographers who will give you the time of day and learn from them. Look to see how they are moving their work forwards creatively and intellectually, as well as how they are promoting and marketing it. This all holds true even if you have no intention of making money from your work. It holds true if you aspire just to be better. Accomplished artists are almost always found in some form of ‘community’. Maier missed out on this and I can only wonder what might have become of her had she had a break… an opening… a chance encouter that gave her someone to talk to…. someone who understood and could communicate with her in a language that came from a place she recognised.
Viviain Maier was talented and if her goal was for her tremendous work to remain in the shadows, she did everything right. If she wanted to have her work seen, she did an awful lot wrong and its important to recognise this side of her story. What is a talent that is not shared? Its not about recognition or fame, but in her case about being painfully, destructively alone, quite possibly recycling her own creative thoughts. Her art was a loud and beautiful voice, but in her lifetime nobody heard it. I’d like to think that all keen photographers, regardless of their outright talent, would avoid the same tragic fate. It’s a beautiful thing we’re involved with!