‘Finding Vivian Maier’ – Illuminating Curatorial Concerns

Mia Fineman raises the issue of the subjectivity of image curation when she says, “What you choose is inevitably a mirror of your own taste.” (Palmer, “Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York | Curating Photography”) The images chosen by a curator are inherently subjective, because the curator feels that those particular images are of artistic merit. A different curator may choose different images, leading to a possible artistic imbalance in the images displayed. In this way, images are selected because of their impact on their curator over any objective artistic merit. This in itself opens up a number of questions about art itself, and the designation of one work as art where another is not. However, this is an entangled philosophical debate best held elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the subjective reasons behind the images chosen is just one concern present in the curation of image collection.

There are, as it might be imagined, a broad number of concerns when it comes to curating image collections. Some of the more theoretical questions are illuminated – however obliquely – by the documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2014). Concerns, for example, around the intent of the creator versus the artistic or historical merit of an image are swiftly brushed aside by the documentary in favour of “demystifying” Maier herself, yet these concerns remain and are immensely pertinent for image curators. Similarly, the question of how much information about the life of the creator is too much is one which is not directly addressed by the documentary but which rises out of it nonetheless.

It is very easy to get tangled up in the question of what Maier may or may not have wanted to come from her images. While John Maloof himself suggests in the documentary that, having looked into selling photographs once upon a time, Maier wanted her images to be displayed, her obsession with privacy and secrecy suggests otherwise. In this way it is wholly natural that creatorial intent be a concern with curating Maier’s images. As a woman who kept 150,000 negatives stored away for decades it is highly likely that she did not want the fame and notoriety that would come from being a famous photographer, yet she is posthumously famous because of the artistic merit of her work. Is it ethically right that someone so private about what they considered a hobby become famous for that very hobby? This is something which image curators must themselves wrestle with and find conclusions to, though I suspect there is no inherently right or wrong answer. Maier, of course, stands only as an example of what can happen. There are hundreds of thousands of photographic collections which were, at one time, private and which in the future may be considered of sufficient artistic or historic merit to be displayed, and the ethics of whether or not they should be displayed is something which image curators will have to face then, too.

Curators must, of course, face the concern of how much information and contextualisation to provide. Finding Vivian Maier, again, illuminates this, to the extent that it is at times quite uncomfortable viewing. Though Maier was dead at the time the documentary was made, the documentary itself is intrusive into the details of her life. This intrusiveness, in turn, detracts from the artistic merit of  her photographs, to the extent that the art is overshadowed by the person, and is unable to stand alone.  Image curators, hence, must consider how much information to provide in order to contextualise the image or images while also giving the art its space to exist as art or history as opposed to as artefacts of an individual’s life. It is critical that a balance be struck in the provision of information.

While the selection of images for display is a subjective act carried out by a curator, the aforementioned concerns with creatorial intent and the amount of information to provide are both ethical and artistic concerns.  Image curation goes far beyond the practicalities of storing or exhibiting physical images, or deciding on a standard with which to attribute metadata to digital images. It is critical to note that many of these concerns are not only associated with image collections, but with written historical documents too such as private diaries or medical prescriptions and thus they need to be considered by historians and museums as much as by image curators.

Vivian Maier, courtesy of vivianmaier.com.
Vivian Maier, courtesy of vivianmaier.com.

Works Cited

Palmer, Daniel. “Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York | Curating Photography.” Curating Photography. N.p., 16 Nov. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

‘About Vivian Maier’. Vivian Maier Photographer. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

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