What Makes a Real Photographer?

by Christopher Hosford

One of the most interesting debates in the world of photography today swirls around the memory of a dead eccentric who would cringe at the idea she was in the public eye whatsoever.

Self Portrait – Vivian Maier

I had this thought after seeing the excellent documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier” about the reclusive children’s nanny who also was a compelling street photographer. Maier, who died in 2009 in poverty, had rarely if ever printed or edited her own shots. More than 100,000 of her negatives were recovered in an auction of “junk” after her death, were brought to public attention by those struck by her work, and have now been embraced by the public.

While many now acclaim Maier as a near genius, a controversy has arisen over what qualifies people to be a “photographer” in the first place.

Maier was technically superb with her Rolleiflex, had a great eye for composition and light, and insinuated herself brilliantly into the private spaces of strangers in order to take a picture. But … she didn’t bother editing her work in the processing and printing process. In the eyes of some, this gap disqualifies her from the first rank of photographers.

By extension, some say the discoverers of her work who are now printing and selling her images not only are shameless profiteers, but also are misleading the world about Maier’s abilities. The excellent commentator Ted Forbes, in his YouTube series The Art of Photography, raised this issue recently, and seriously considers the point.

Children – Vivian Maier

I view the debate through the prism of journalism, since that’s how I make my living. I’ve always tried to do my best in the “shooting” aspect of writing, which includes reporting, verifying and crafting of words. But very few writers have any control once their work is handed off to editors and publishers—or in fact are very good editors themselves, especially of their own work. Anyone can appreciate this who’s read the unedited embarrassments on the Internet.

The poet Emily Dickinson is an apt Maier analog. Another famous recluse, Dickinson rarely published. After her death the first editions of her poems were printed only after her idiosyncratic syntax, usage, grammar and punctuation were “improved.” Only recently has her work been published as originally written, but it was the edited printings of her poems that brought her to prominence.

Consider other arts. Michelangelo’s “David” was originally intended to be positioned along the roofline of a Florentine cathedral, but later was situated in a public square, and then replaced at the original location with a replica. Does this “editing” after the event violate the artist’s intentions? Has it harmed the art itself? I’d bet a hatful of florins that the artist made the statue expressly to be viewed from afar and well below.

Woman - Vivian Maier

Woman – Vivian Maier

Are photographers expected to be great shooters as well as great processors, great printers, great chemists, great optical technicians, great mathematicians (the “zone system,” anyone?), or expert in many other abilities? Just how many skills must it take to be considered a “true” photographer?

I will say that Maier’s own reclusiveness harmed her legacy. Because she never, and I mean never, threw anything away, everything is now before the public, including the just OK and the dreck. Forbes’ critical assessment of Maier is partly based on her pedestrian stuff. If she could have foreseen the future, she may have chosen carefully, processed well, and hidden the embarrassments out of sight.

I’ll leave it to others to hash out the fine points of the debate. For me, if Maier’s negatives are all we have I’m good with that. They illustrate well her terrific photographic ideas, and that she could capture them vividly and compellingly. It would be swell if we all were so talented.


From Chuck: Chris started and moderates the Facebook group “Kodak Brownie Fans“. I’m excited about Chris contributing his thoughts and ideas to this blog.

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