Shirley Baker and Vivian Maier

This was a small unofficial study visit made by four of us to what turned out to be two contrasting women photographers.

The first was an exhibition by Shirley Baker entitled Women, Children and Loitering Men and were photos of the families of the inner city districts of Salford and Manchester during the sixties and seventies.  As the title suggests the photos are predominantly of women and children (the latter often in groups or maybe gangs?) with some shots of the male residents.  Taken during the slum clearances, the body of work serves as both a long term documentary (the queue outside the caravan for Housing placements for example) and as valuable historical record as well as moving and evocative portraits individually.

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Shirley Baker at the Photographers Gallery

There is clearly a rapport between Baker and her subjects and they all look at ease (if not always happy in the case of the adults) and the group shots of the children are particularly effective.  Although most of the photos were in black and white there was a number of colour shots and some of these were lovely in their composition:-

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Shirley Baker at the Photographers Gallery

 

 

The curator, Anna Douglas, in her introduction to the exhibition, makes the point that -by using a rolleiflex – Baker was looking at and had contact with her subjects so there was always an engagement there, I’ll return to this point later.  She also points out that Baker was not of these people (she was a daughter of a small factory owner so was middle class) but due to the length of time of what was an ongoing project they got to know her very well so there was not the suspicion that a visiting photographer might otherwise receive.

The introduction can be found here:-

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/shirley-baker-women-children-and-loitering-men

As a body of work I found it a powerful piece but its worth noting just how good I felt some the individual shots were.  Note the top right shot in this group, its a stunning piece of work (in fact all four of these are pretty good!):-

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Shirley Baker at the Photographers Gallery

 

What I found interesting was that all the shots on display were external, so there was no indication of the real living conditions.  I am not sure whether this was reticence on the part of Baker or whether she thought that maybe pushing things too far maybe and may possibly be down to class difference?  Nevertheless the was a real sense of involvement and dedication in the work.

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Shirley Baker at the Photographers Gallery

 

The second part of the visit was to see Vivian Maier’s work at  Beetles + Huxley , not an exhibition as such in my view, more of a product display.

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Vivian Maier at Beetles + Huxley

There was no real background other than a limited description of how the current owner, John Maloof, came by the negatives,  the story of this and the ongoing legal arguments over ownership and rights are well documented elsewhere, not least by fellow OCA student Steve Middlehurst:-

https://stevemiddlehurstcontextandnarrative.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/vivian-maier-commercial-treasure-or-artist/

I also recommend Ted Forbes take on Maier (with particular reference to the curation, or lack thereof, of her work) in this episode of the Art of Photography:-

In any event Maier is obviouslty big business, the prints were on sale (in limited runs of 15 signed by Mr Maloof) for well over £2,000.

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Vivian Maier at Beetles + Huxley

I have to say I was not overly impressed with the photos, compared to the hype.  The quote often referred to in internet searches and articles about Maier is this one:-

“That rare case of a genuine undiscovered artist, she left behind a huge trove of pictures that rank her with the great American midcentury street photographers. The best pictures bring to life a fantastic swath of history that now needs to be rewritten to include her.”
– Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times Magazine, February 16, 2012

To me I think that is overstating the case and if I think back to a recent street photographers I’ve enjoyed, Leiter and Frank, I don’t think she ranks as highly as them, at least not to me.

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Vivian Maier at Beetles + Huxley

That is not to say the photos are not good, but again to me, there was no involvement in them, no connection or eye contact with the subjects – except rarely (and notably with children) – and in comparison with Bakers work there is a real sense of detachment.

It may well be the fault of the curation, but to me there is no voice here, just a shotgun approach to photography on an almost compulsive level (if the number of negatives reported to be found is correct.) and apparently secretive basis.  As Sarah-Jane (one of four OCA students on the visit) pointed out its almost like an early version Instagram with everything being photographed.  As an observational photographer (which is I would say a pre-requisite for a Street photographer) I think she is pretty good but there is not, in my view, the artistry behind them to elevate her to the heights that some would seem to place her.

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The OCA crew, Sarah-Jane Field, Holly Woodward, Jayne Kemp and me.

A further bit of self analysis here  – what was also an interesting contrast between the two visits was that I had no previous knowledge of Shirley Baker and therefore no preconceptions.   The same can not be said for Vivian Maier as I’ve read, and seen, a lot about her and so am fully prepared to admit that I almost certainly did bring some preconception with me in her case and I’m prepared to admit that may have influenced my view.

One final thought, and this follows on from Ted Forbes point, we have no idea that this is how (or  even if) Vivian Maier wanted her photos displayed like this and it may be unfair to judge her on the material being released without her having the advantage other photographers have had, that of self censorship.   Its a shame I think that there has not, nor is there likely to be an objective, and all encompassing curatorship, of her work.

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