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Howard Greenberg on Vivian Maier: “I’ve never seen anything like it”

Internationally renowned art dealer Howard Greenberg on Vivian Maier, on what makes a great street photographer and an iconic shot.

Image for Howard Greenberg on Vivian Maier: “I’ve never seen anything like it”

Photo: Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection und Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Internationally renowned art dealer Howard Greenberg on Vivian Maier, on what makes a great street photographer and an iconic shot.

Is it true when you first saw Vivian Maier’s work you weren’t blown away?

It is true. About ten years ago, I started getting emails from friends asking if I had heard about her and I had not. It was being touted as an interesting new discovery and I surmised that somebody had found her negatives and they looked interesting but nothing to set the world on fire. It was only later when John Maloof – the man who first bought all these boxes of negatives at auction – took me to his attic where he had everything of hers laid out, that it became obvious there were some really good photographs. And, just as importantly, that she had a very interesting story.

What makes the story of Vivian Maier so extraordinary?

I’ve never encountered anything like it in my entire career. She photographed to an extremely high level and understood the language of street photography despite the fact she lived in a vacuum and kept all her work private. She left more than 150,000 negatives and she did all this while working as a nanny. This was a revelation, no photographer would be able to do this work for so many years without getting feedback.

She cultivated her own unknowability, changing her name and actively remaining inconspicuous. Would you say these are necessary traits for being a street photographer?

Well some street photographers do put cameras right up in peoples’ faces but most street photographers try and remain invisible – you don’t want people on streets to react, you want them to do what they are doing naturally. With Maier she dressed poorly so people would not stare at her on the streets, and used a Rolleiflex camera hidden near her stomach. She really could be invisible.

Could you tell me about the exhibition you are putting on at Noack Foundry?

A lot of the selected pictures are her most well-known and they’re long sold out. Also in the show we’ve selected about 20 or 25 or her original vintage prints, both colour and black and white, giving visitors the chance to see them alongside her posthumous prints, it is a really fascinating insight.

Has she been accepted by the art establishment?

It’s interesting to me how that has unfolded because we sell very few prints to museums. This is especially true in America where there is a prejudice against non-vintage prints and for photographers who aren’t already in history books. Yet we’ve sold thousands of prints all over the world and 90 percent have been sold to people I am not familiar with – non-photography collectors. That’s never happened before.

Maier’s negatives looked interesting but nothing to set the world on fire. It was only later that it became obvious.

Having started off as a photographer, how did you find the transition from artist to dealer?

That happened a long time ago. I was working in Woodstock in the 70s and I set up the Centre for Photography mainly because there were so many good photographers who lived there like Eva Watson-Schütze – a pioneering female photographer. I thought it was a great chance to educate people about the history of photography. I eventually opened up my own commercial gallery in 1981 and moved it to New York five years later.

Other than Maier, what was your most important photographic discovery?

Back in Woodstock, I knew the artist Doris Lee quite well who for a short time had been married to the photographer Russell Lee in the 1930s. She was famously drunk all the time, in a robe and hanging out on a daybed and whenever I asked if she had any photographs of Lee’s, she would tell me not to bother her. But after she died I knew the local antique dealer who had been called in to access what had been left behind, and underneath her bed were cartons of photographs, 600 images including an entire series of Dorothy Lange’s Migrant Mother – one of the most important series of pictures ever made. I bought the whole collection for $5000. The bad news is I sold it for $6000 a little while later.

How do you select a photographer to work with?

In the beginning, I discovered many mid- century and post-war photographers who hadn’t made it into the history books. And at the same time I was also becoming more aware of the classics, and in those days you could buy quality vintage prints by Walker Evans and Edward Steichen and simply set up an exhibition – sadly those days are long gone. But working with these established artists supported my younger, lesser known photographers.

If you pluck a photographer from obscurity, how do you go about building up their career?

The process? It starts from opportunity. There’s a number of factors I’m looking out for: If they have not been exhibited and their collections were still rich and deep and I strongly feel the right associations about their work within the timeline of 20th-century photography – and, of course if I’m loving what I am seeing. But I would nearly always know them already, it did not often happen that I saw a photographer’s work in a book and then called them up.

You’ve built up a reputation for rediscovering photographers from the past and establishing a market for their work – who are you most proud of elevating?

The most important to me is probably Saul Leiter, a mid-century New York photographer who was largely unknown at the time. It wasn’t until we started putting on shows at my gallery that he received a surge in popularity and I am still proud of that.

Vivian Maier: Streetqueen Through Jan 30, Noack Gallery

Howard Greenberg began his career as a freelance photojournalist before setting up the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York in 1991. A highly regarded expert on the history of photography, he has curated numerous critically acclaimed exhibitions including ‘Edward Steichen: 1914-1923’ and ‘Appeal to This Age’, a pictorial overview of the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in bringing the street photographer Vivian Maier to a world-wide audience and appeared in the acclaimed documentary Finding Vivian Maier in 2014.