“Finding Vivian Maier”: Ethics vs. Entitlement


Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned. If all events are seen, instantaneously, outside time, by a supernatural eye, the distinction between remembering and forgetting is transformed into an act of judgment, into the rendering of justice, whereby recognition is close to being remembered, and condemnation is close to being forgotten.” – Berger


“Finding Vivian Maier” is the story an impassioned flea-market frequenter striving to curate and share the work of an eccentric street photographer posing as a mid-century Mary Poppins, or so it seems. Initially intriguing, the documentary highlights the clouded existence of extraordinary art and an underappreciated artiste in modern day New York. However, as the biopic continues Maloof’s pervasive enquiries into the life of an evidently private person start to raise questions surrounding the legitimacy of his quest. As the credits roll we are left to ponder the ethics of posthumous publication and media based curation.

The question of Maier’s natural talent is not the contentious issue here. The quandary is that while her work is beautiful and provocative, a product of what could be the dying art of street photography as we know it, it was, prior to her death, a completely private collection, in every sense of the word (Coffee 93). The digitised and printed negatives on display in Maloof’s biopic were the components of an extensive hoard maintained by Maier throughout her life. With the exception of a brief reference to publication in a private letter Maier showed no indication of publicising her exhaustive collection. In fact, the documentary exemplifies and violates this sense of privacy as it details Maier’s efforts to maintain a very private persona.  If Maloof had made the argument that the negatives deserved publication, simply because of their artistic beauty and expression, or because, as Berger has argued above, they serve to remember and vindicate a past possibly forgotten, then perhaps one could find merit in that. However, this is sadly not the case. Maloof’s weak justification for publication leaves us open to the conclusion, that in this case at least, curiosity has been deemed sufficient reason for the invasion of privacy (Tallerico). This furthers the ethical debate as the curation community must ask itself if possessing data entitles us to use it, irrespective of motivation but simply out of integrity, and if pervasive biographical publications are a suitable form of cultivating human interest.


Ultimately, the ethical dilemma surrounding the work of Vivian Maier may never be known. In the absence of expressed wishes or legal documents we can only guess what the reclusive Maier would have wanted. While I can appreciate the artistic talent of Maier’s work and am grateful for the ability to view it, the probing and publication of the mysterious figure’s life seems to take the standard of permissible curiosity too far. Perhaps using artistic merit or Berger’s redemption we can justify posthumous publication to a reasonable degree. However, the exposition of a woman’s clearly private life can be deemed no more than selfish human curiosity, a fault to which we are all almost true to.




Berger, John, About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books (1980). Print.

Coffee, Kevin. “Misplaced: Ethics and the Photographs of Vivian Maier.” Museum Management and Curatorship 29.2 (2014): 93–101. Web.

Tallerico, Brian, RogerEbert.com. Web. Date accessed: 08 November 2016. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/finding-vivian-maier-2014


Authenticity and Aura: The Annotation of Replicas


Kirlian Photography: Hand
Kirlian Photography: Hand

In his paper on aura and democratisation Stuart Jeffrey addresses a number of concerns relating to digital visualisations and reproducing the authenticity of cultural objects (Jeffrey 144). While acknowledging that the application of aura to digital reproductions is possible in certain contexts, particularly in community engagement programmes, Jeffrey nonetheless argues that the ‘weirdness’ of the digital limits its potential (Jeffrey 151). While I agree with Jeffrey that the digital is not comparable to its analogue counterpart this post will seek to show that through creative curation, particularly with the aid of good annotation, digital replicas can adopt an aura of their own. This aura can not only stand on its own but can augment the aura of the existing original.

The Aura

Walter Benjamin defines the aura as an object’s ‘presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Benjamin, II). This definition expands to include what is termed the authenticity of an object, that is ‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ (Benjamin). Jeffrey’s adaption of ‘the aura’ is more closely associated with the people who handled an object. For Jeffrey, our connection with an object ‘ is simply the latest link in the chain and somehow connects us to every other person on the same chain’ (Jeffrey 147). While I agree that Jeffrey’s chain theory is one aspect of aura it is by no means the sole definition. Jeffrey uses the example of an uncovered crown to demonstrate aura and authenticity through its association with rulers. While monarchs usually have a reserved place in history as key figures, largely due to the importance we ourselves place on their symbolic presence rather than actual achievement, is a crown that was made but not worn by a monarch any less important or historically relevant than one that was?

Curation and Annotation

In an academic discussion relating to digital history Patrick Gallagher, a leader in the field of exhibit design, wrote about the immersion concept in museums. This concept refers to Gallagher’s attempts to create ‘real environments that tell stories, display artifacts, create emotion, and most particularly offer learning experiences.’ (The Promise of Digital History). If we consider that the feelings evoked in public exhibits are the result of thought out layout, structure and annotation, and that it is these features which enable objects to be contextualised, and therefore imbued with aura, then is it not possible to achieve the same through an online exhibit.

I would argue that the Smithsonian museum have done just this with their online tour of The Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale Hat) (Hollinger, SimthsonianX 3D). The application guides the user through a sixteen step tour detailing the origin of the hat, the creation of the 3D model and replica and a comparison of the original and replica. The tour is carried out in an annotation window next to the 3D digital model and each annotated step is accompanied by pictures. These pictures follow the same topics as their textual counterpart. Through this display the ‘visitor’ can compare both original and replica and understand the origins and context of each. In this way both artefacts have their own, unique, story and aura, which are both dependent on different contexts. Additionally, through the side by side comparison it is evident that the replica and original are not identical. The annotated notes explain that deterioration and colour fading has altered the original hat. While this, Jeffrey and Benjamin would argue, gives the original object its own, protected, aura, it also gives the replica a trait of its own as the visitor can see what the ‘authentic’ object looked like exactly when it was first created. To increase the authenticity of their replica the museum also record the interaction of the tribal community associated with the original in the creation and unveiling of the replica. Through this interface the visitor obtains an immersive experience, akin to that of a museum or heritage site, and this experience encourages and augments the aura of the digital.


Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Web. 21 October 2016.

Cohen, Daniel  et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95.2 (2008): 452-491. Web. 22 October 2016.

Hollinger, Eric, Smithsonian X3D. Smithsonian Institution. Web. 20 October 2016.

Jeffrey, Stuart, “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation” Open Archaeology  1:1 (2015): 144-152. Web. 18 October 2016.