Interview: Jeffrey Goldstein of Vivian Maier Prints
Tucked in the corner of “Weegee: Naked City,” the unmissable show now on at Steven Kasher Gallery through February 25th, is an equally riveting set of street photographs documenting New York in the decade after Weegee’s prolific period in the thirties and forties.
While Weegee scrambled through the night after leads from a police radio in search of the sensational images that would sell papers and immortalize him early on in the photographic canon, another photographer labored in total obscurity, on her own compulsive quest to represent the life of the city.
Vivian Maier has only posthumously, in the brief interval since her death in 2009 at 83, become a household name. In a story which has already taken on mythic qualities, Maier, a lifelong nanny, had quietly and steadily created a monumental body of important work over five decades. Born in New York, and alternating in her youth between France and the City, she eventually settled into a life of nannying for Chicago’s elites.
A private, by most accounts eccentric person with few friends, she spent her free days wandering the streets. Methodically turning her lens on every aspect of urban life, across all classes, she produced well over 100,000 negatives. The results are sublime, uniting a clear aesthetic intuition with a probing curiosity about the world she inhabited. Each photo from the show could easily stand alongside the work of the great street photographers of her time. Inscrutably, she never showed her work to anyone or made any attempt to find an audience.
Her work could easily have been lost, as countless outsider artists no doubt have been. But by a few strokes of luck, her negatives landed in the right hands, mainly with two collectors, both of whom are genuinely interested in introducing this unheralded talent to the world.
The show presents a brilliant dichotomy. Maier, the stealthy observer of the quotidian, painting a nuanced portrait of the city and its social rites and roles, is the perfect foil for the brash, electric Weegee, scrappily fighting his way through crowds to catch the feverish moment when societal strictures succumb to humanity’s more primal urges.
Which brings us to the question, if Weegee was motivated, like most of us, by the thrill of getting the story and getting it seen by as many people as possible – the prototypical “mass-communicator,” as the late Tim Hetherington put it in our interview with him last year – what motivated Maier? This is the question that you’ll see a lot of people trying to grapple with in the coming years. One major book has already been released, and more are in the works. Finding Vivian Maier, an independent film about her life and work, garnered five times its proposed $20,000 seed funding from 1,500 donations on Kickstarter, and Hollywood is also scrambling after the story.
I talked with Jeffrey Goldstein, who owns the second largest portion of the Maier collection, and who provided the photos from the Kasher show, about what makes this body of work, and the person behind it, so interesting to so many.
Nathan Lee Bush: Tell me how you came to find this body of work.
Jeffrey Goldstein: That becomes a long story. I’ll wear your batteries out on that one. But, it was through an acquisition through one of the original buyers, from an auction house. The auction house had purchased Vivian Maier’s storage locker that went into arrears. So, in a nutshell, that’s my story.
NLB: And are you a photo collector, or an art collector?
JF: I’m actually a practicing artist, a painter and woodworker. I’ve made my living for the last thirty years as a carpenter and a cabinet maker. I’ve been self-employed. That business I’ve had to shut down – in May it will be two years – in order to do this project. I am a collector, but more so of lithography and etching and some painting and I do know and do work for some of Chicago’s major artists like Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt, and because of my woodworking, I also know collectors, and museum and gallery people. So it’s a wide body of those in and related to the arts. As far as photo collecting, I’ve used photos as resources for my own personal work. But as far as collecting this is the start of my collecting of photography.
JF: I think there are two aspects to it. One is the story itself, which Hollywood couldn’t create. And the second one is the work that stands up to the story. I think the fact of someone being possessed to create a massive body of work, a lifetime body of work, without any inclination of showing or sharing, is just unheard of in the arts.
She had the sophistication of knowing what other photographers were doing – she had books. She was politically aware. So she wasn’t, in a sense, an outsider, who was lost in her own world. But she spent her life documenting herself, and her world around her.
NLB: Stories have come out of the woodwork through people that knew her, how does that fit into her character as a photographer?
JF: I think it dovetails nicely. There were stories where she had an oddness and quirkiness to her that some people found offensive and some people found endearing, and her work, if you look at it, has an element of isolation to it. And I think she was very much, in a sense, isolated. I’ve used this word before, “tethered.” I think the act of going around and shooting gives one a sense of purpose and it also gives a sense of being tethered to the streets around them.
Her pictures seem to have a questioning quality. She worked with families, she lived with families, but it was never the longevity of her own family. I think there was a sense of being lost and trying to find purpose that’s in her work. And there is an empathy with all ranges of human condition, including homelessness, and at one point she herself was homeless. And she was still shooting, just not developing. So there were over 1,200 rolls of film that were undeveloped.
NLB: So this whole process was a financial hardship for her?
JF: I think she was brilliant to keep up with the basic needs of life: food clothing and shelter, while she was a nanny, but there was the ongoing expense of developing and storage. So she was able to figure out how best, in her own abilities, to keep this passion going. But again, without ever the idea of using it to support itself.
NLB: That’s the enigma.
JF: Yeah, everybody has an agenda of why they produce something, and it’s as varied as the number of artists out there. But to be motivated to this degree…. Some people say she was just a pure artist who did this just for herself. The flip side is, they say a piece of art doesn’t exist until it communicates to someone else. It’s like an electric connection that goes back and forth.
The question also arises, “would she want this? The Exposure?” But the fact that she did a lifetime body of work…. It’s a societal decision: if it’s for the betterment of everybody, it’s worth exploring. Part of an artists job is to edit during their lifetime. The fact that she made the decision not to allows full exposure. And the rarity of this collection is that it’s a complete archive: the good, the bad, the learning curve, the thematic themes that cropped up. So it’s actually very fortuitous she didn’t edit. Artists are known to be their own worst editors.
NLB: So what do you think about the edit for this particular show. It seemed like there were specific themes, like the self-portrait with reflection theme, and catching her own shadow. What do you think the whole emphasis of this show was?
JF: Steven Kasher did the selection, and I think it has a very New York or urban feel to it. And so there’s an embracing of the edginess, oddities and quirkiness of life. As far as shadows, that become a theme that she followed throughout her career. There’s the odd thing of self-portraits, and you wonder, “why would someone who doesn’t want any exposure, who wants to remain anonymous, take pictures of themselves?” And those are some of her most stunning works.
NLB: And did her shadow photographs predate Lee Friedlander’s?
JF: Those precise dates I don’t know, but she was shooting shadows all the way back into her early New York years in the fifities. And she had interesting thematics with fireplugs – people standing next to fireplugs, people sitting on fireplugs – mailboxes, leaves. In fact, Steven Kasher is very insightful. He notices a lot of pictures of a single leaf, which would be an easy thing to pass by. But it’ll be one leaf stuck between fence pickets, one leaf on a car roof, and Steve’s insight was, that she was like a single leaf, off the tree, lost from the tree. It’s a metaphoric isolation.
NLB: That’s the interesting part for me. These are like her journals, so this is what we have to understand her thought process
Very much so, it documented her life story, which easily could have gotten buried.
NLB: And almost was.