Destroying the Negatives of Vivian Maier: A New Discovery of Chicago Street Photographer Vivian Maier's Negatives in the Archive of Artist Scott Allen Whitworth
Destroying the Negatives of Vivian Maier
By Scott Allen Whitworth
Part I: Discovery
I am writing to the reader to tell of a discovery, and of subsequent observations made during a very busy time in my life, the late summer of 2016. This discovery needs a little set up, so here goes. During this time in 2016 I had been preparing new artwork and application materials to send out to photography Master of Fine Arts programs, somewhat helping to plan a wedding with my now wife (thanks to you, Alyssa, for picking up my slack), working in a factory part-time, seeking gallery representation, scraping and painting our home’s exterior . . . the list goes on. Also during this time, a good friend of mine named Taylor had just returned from a couple year stay in China as an English as a second language teacher. Along with another good friend Isaac, Taylor and I decided to get together to catch up with one another.
My friends and I sat on my home’s back porch, consumed some alcohol, caught up with each other, and talked about the future. After the evening chill had set in we moved to the basement/studio, where our conversation continued. Due to my being a photographer/artist, Isaac decided to tell Taylor and I of a documentary he had recently viewed. The documentary had been based on the life of a photographer whose amazing street scenes had burst forth into the art world posthumously. Isaac spoke of her confrontational imagery, her peculiar occupation as a nanny (given her extremely advanced artistic vision), and of the specific type of camera that she had captured the majority of her photographs with. As Isaac is not a photographer, he stumbled through his limited photographic vocabulary in search of the terminology to describe the device which she had famously photographed the streets of Chicago with. After a brief account of her gear and a short round of charades, I realized that his explanation and gesturing pointed to the likely culprit being a twin lens reflex camera. I strolled over to a shelf holding an array of my film cameras, from which I pulled out my Calumet Seagull twin lens reflex camera. He confirmed this device to be the same type of camera the photographer in the documentary had used. Isaac continued on, going into detail of the intricacies of the woman’s photographic style, often times having a voyeuristic approach to her subject matter. She had taken photographs of the backs of street goer’s legs, many self-portraits in reflections, and . . . wait a second. This was all starting to sound very familiar to me. My mind instantly flitted to my archives of old, discarded photographic prints and negatives, filling with imagery I had encountered from one particular collection of 120 film negatives that I had purchased on the electronic auction website, eBay, in late 2008 or early 2009.
The purchase of the aforementioned 120 film negatives had been made while earning my Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography at Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This had been merely one purchase out of many related photographic purchases that I had been making since around the age of 12. I initially began collecting and archiving photo- based imagery after my grandmother had purchased a home in Jones, Michigan. The two-story home had been filled, practically floor to ceiling, with the belongings of a deceased woman named Pearl Taylor. Her husband Paul had presumably passed away some time before Pearl had. To the best of my knowledge Pearl and Paul were survived by a daughter, who had already taken everything she had wanted from the vast collection of items left behind by Pearl. By the looks of the home, Pearl and Paul had been collecting anything and everything for the majority of their lives. I vaguely recall traversing the narrow corridors created by old furniture, stacks of musty paperwork, linens, decorations, and other miscellaneous items of the like. Among this vast material archive that filled the home were a number of old-timey family photo albums, a small old wooden desk, and some oddities such as keychains and old 1940’s dog license paperwork from the families springer spaniel (which is where I initially discovered Paul Taylor’s name) , which my grandmother chose to bestow upon me. I had at one point asked my mother why none of Pearl’s relatives were interested in the collection of family photographs. Although I can not remember my mother’s response to this question, I remember thinking it to be strange that these beautiful (at least to me) photographs of family vacations, nature, outings, and loved ones had been willingly abandoned by the surviving family. This formative experience stuck with me, and thus began my continued fascination with discarded photography.
I began buying up all of the cheaply-priced old photographs that I happened upon. I did not at the time consider why I had begun to create an archive, and I had yet to even conceive of the idea that I was in fact creating an archive at all. What I did recognize in my actions was that I had become very drawn to the aesthetic and the idea of the now obsolete photographic processes whose remnants I collected at estate sales, antique auctions, and later on eBay (once my family had purchased its first computer). I would often insert imagined narrative into a photograph, or postulate questions, wondering such things as if perhaps one of the photographed subjects could be a long-lost ancestor, for I had been adopted at birth. Was this women depicted in photograph my unknown mother? Was this man depicted in another photograph possibly my biological father? My collection of old photographs, ranging from tintypes of the late 19th century to Polaroids captured in the 80’s, steadily grew as I found an interesting way to spend my job earnings. Although I had no interest in any artistic pursuits at that point in my life, I had (or perhaps my grandmother had) helped to set the stage for my development into an artist and photographer.
Later on during my high school years I had managed to avoid taking any kind of “lame” art classes, which were of course required to graduate, until my junior year. Prior to this art course, which happened to be intro to photography (which I viewed as the least “arty” at the time, thus why I chose to enroll in it), I had planned on pursuing my talents in the sciences. I was considering seriously a career in biology or psychology, a far cry from a career in the arts. After capturing multiple award-winning photographs on the second roll of film that I had ever exposed with my newly-purchased 35mm camera I ditched my scientific aspirations (for the time at least), instead filling my schedule from that point forward with as many art classes as I could enroll in before my impending graduation.
I became well versed in an array of artistic mediums, latching onto photography as my area of focus. I often drove to South Bend, IN, from my home town of Sturgis, Michigan. Here I would park my rickety pickup truck and catch the train to Chicago, where I would photograph street scenes on Kodak T-Max 3200 speed b&w film until there was not enough natural light to do so. The variety in economic background and emotions within faces of the people here enamored me, and this subject matter quickly became the focus of my first cohesive portfolio of photography. Street photography quickly became my bread and butter. I photographed (for the most part) incognito from the hip with a manual 28mm prime lens and a lengthy cable release. This portfolio eventually gained for me multiple awards at the Scholastic Art Competitions, as well as a competitive scholarship for incoming freshman at Kendall College of Art & Design. Throughout high school I had continued to collect and archive discarded photographs of the past alongside my capturing of street scenes and any other subject matter that interested me. I had added to my ongoing archive the collecting of photographic negatives. This addition of materials came from my newly developed skills in the darkroom, and I added to my collection of photographic material such things as a glass plate negative of a New York prisoner, plastic 4x5 negatives of WWII in the Philippines, medium format film of family vacations, and whatever else struck my fancy or caught my eye through pleasing aesthetics or subject matter.
Moving forward to my freshman year of college at KCAD, I found myself looking at an eBay auction of old discarded 120 film negatives housed in wax protectors. The negatives were of street scenes, which of course was of familiar interest to me. I looked through the few representations that had been posted by the seller of the negatives, inverting them in Photoshop (CS3) and discovering them to be of exceptional compositional quality and strong subject matter. The negatives had immediately caught my eye, and I followed the auction for these negatives but they were unfortunately priced well out of my affordability range with the bid approaching $30. The night of the auctions end I found myself inebriated among friends and in a cheerful mood. Given this state of mind I decided to splurge on these stunning negatives, considering them a must have for my ever-growing archive. My friend Isaac, who I previously mentioned, happened to be there that night if memory serves me correctly (which, in all honesty, it often does not). As the bid for these negatives swelled to just over $80 my “broke” heart sank, but alas, this collection of beautiful imagery was now mine.
Upon receiving my purchase in the mail, my buyer’s remorse, which had swiftly developed after the alcohol had worn off the morning after purchasing the negatives, was immediately swept away. The negatives were even more gorgeous and detailed than I had imagined they would be from my viewing of them as low-quality, inverted Photoshop jpegs. I began making enlargements and contact prints in my darkroom, which at the time was also home to the rest of my belongings. In fact, one might say that the room was not a darkroom, but was rather a bedroom with an enlarger and some chemical trays in it. I was amazed by the wealth of superb imagery that I was finding within this new purchase of mine, but after contact printing and enlarging for a brief period of time I set the printing of these negatives aside and focused on my schooling. I would often look through these negatives (as I still do), along with the others in my collection, for inspiration and ideas. Eventually my artistic working practices became destructive in nature, and many of the negatives from my archives were tortured and reworked by myself through the use of flame, chemical, and abrasion. I might add that I also applied these techniques to photographic negatives that I had captured myself. The driving forces behind these destructive processes were fueled by the development of the ideas which remain integral to my artistic creations today. These ideas include death, dying twice, and the fading of memories of the deceased within the minds of those still living. As my artistic ideas continued to develop and I added research to back these ideas, so continued the uninhibited destruction of imagery from within my archive. These methods of reworking imagery were encouraged by fellow artists, professors, friends, and family.
Circling back around to the aforementioned night among friends, just after having heard Isaac describe the bizarre photography and the enigma of the nanny who had captured said photography, a swelling feeling of recognition was now overpowering my mind as a beaming grin sprouted from my face with attempt to conceal my inner thoughts lest I be severely disappointed. I was becoming more and more certain as his description continued that I had, for some 8 or so years, been in the possession of a master photographer’s negatives. I had by this time destroyed a descent amount of frames from these 120 format film negatives of Maier’s and appropriated them within my own photomontage and collage imagery. I had also digitally archived many of these as well with a professional scanner. I quickly walked over to my computer, plugged in my external hard drive that housed these scanned negatives, and sifted through a folder until I came across a self portrait of a woman on a TIME magazine cover, cleverly arranged by the photographer through reflection. Isaac had pulled up on his phone a google image search of the photographer, Vivian Maier, whose work he had been describing. The faces on the two screens matched, and I had discovered the identity of the photographer whose negatives I had purchased years earlier.
Part II: The “Stop Factor”
As I mentioned previously, since beginning the development of my artistic practices that involved the degradation of reclaimed imagery captured by photographers of the past, my work has been encouraged by professors, fellow artists, friends, and family. During my Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis review at KCAD, I also received encouraging remarks regarding the continued development of this body of artwork whose central ideas revolved around death, dying twice, and the fading of memories of the deceased over time. A question was put forth during my thesis review, asking, “What would happen if you discovered the identity of a subject or artist whose image you have destroyed?” This question would of course later be answered after I indeed discovered the identity of the photographer Vivian Maier, whose negatives I had been destroying for years.
After the discovery was made that I was in possession of the negatives of a now famous photographer, I decided that I would keep this information confined to a small group of close friends, family, and a very helpful former professor of mine. Before coming forth with the find, I reasoned that I would need some time to research the legality behind my appropriation of Maier’s imagery into my own artworks, which I had now been destroying and reworking intermittently for some six or seven years. I was also taking into consideration the ownership rights of Maier’s negatives that were in my possession. I had initially skimmed a google search and found that John Maloof, the creator of the documentary film “Finding Vivian Maier” (that Isaac had informed me of) and the owner of the majority of Maier’s photographic work, had been pursued in the United States court system by the estate of Vivian Maier for the violation of printing rights. This was despite the fact that Maloof had taken the time to track down any known living relatives and paid them for the printing rights of Maier’s images.
After further research I found that the court case Maloof had been faced with over printing rights had recently come to a mutual agreement between the two parties (Update: after having spoken to John Maloof via email after initially posting this on my website's blog, I found that the court case Maloof potentially faced over printing rights had never actually come to fruition, but instead had come to a mutual agreement between the two parties without the necessity of court involvement). This gave some relief to my growing anxieties that the negatives I had owned and treasured as learning tools may be taken from me should I choose to come forward with them. I had also consulted with my very helpful former professor about any legal issues that potentially faced me as a result of my appropriation techniques being used within my artwork creation. I was referred back to the classic case of Cambell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. This court case was over the music group 2 Live Crew’s parody of the song “Pretty Woman”. The ruling on the 1994 case, which favored 2 Live Crew, helped established fair use within parody. I also re-familiarized myself with the concept of sufficient transformation with reference to appropriated imagery, whereby the work of another is changed to such a degree that it becomes a new and unique artwork unto itself. I recalled the artist Sherrie Levine from my photography history course at KCAD, who had photographed the photographs of famous photographers from history such as Edward Weston and Walker Evans. I came to the conclusion that my artwork was free of any lawbreaking. This realization allowed me to turn my attention to a question that had been lingering in the back of my mind, it allowed me to focus on the question that has been asked of me during my thesis review.
The question, “what would happen if you discovered the identity of a subject or artist whose image you have destroyed”, had been answered repeatedly for me as I had initially informed those close friends, family, and the helpful former professor of mine of the discovery of Vivian Maier negatives within my archive. The responses were, unanimously, to halt the destruction of Maier’s negatives that I had been appropriating within my work. This reaction, although very understandable to me, seemed to be almost as strange upon analysis as the thoughts that had initially inspired my archiving at a young age, those thoughts of mine concerned with why photography is discarded in the first place and what it means in the larger context of humanity. As I told people of my find, concern was severely lacking in anyone I spoke to for any of the other photographers whose photographs and negatives I had been destroying alongside this of Maier. This concern for the negatives of Vivian Maier, paired with the lack of concern for any of the other imagery I had been destroying at the same time, I will refer to as the “stop factor”.
Being an artist dedicated to my work and the ideas behind my work, I was not convinced by any means that I should stop the graded destruction and appropriation of any material within my archive. I had, of course, been performing these destructive processes on my own imagery as well. I had explained to those I informed of the find that before I had destroyed these negatives through flame, chemical, and abrasion, I had also taken the time to carefully scan in each frame beforehand at 4800 dpi on a professional scanner. I wanted to continue along with my artwork, which had been appropriating these images for years at this point. Anyone I spoke to of this desire was dumbfounded, and seemingly of the opinion that to continue working with her negatives as I had been doing would be the equivalent of Duchamp strolling into the Louvre with a paintbrush and painting a mustache across the upper lip of the Leonardo da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa. I explained further to many my attachment to the Maier negatives within my archive, having used them in the past as compositional learning tools and for inspiration during the development of my artistic ideas. Now that these negatives had reached a point in popular culture and the art world where they had attained perceived artistic value, endorsed by famous individuals such as Tim Roth and Joel Meyerowitz (both of whose work I admire), I was apparently no longer allowed to destroy and rework these images, or at least not without encountering criticism for doing so from many.
The question posed during my thesis review has been answered, in part at least, with the “stop factor”. Now I pose another question to be investigated. Why was there a shift in thought about the destruction and appropriation of photographic imagery from past photographers within my artwork? Through armchair psychology one can guess that the “stop factor” was emergent from the public perception of what art has value, as declared by individuals who hold sway in the art world. Once a work of art is adopted into the art world and declared to have worth or artistic merit, said work of art moves into the realm of sacred artifact in the public eye regardless of what lower position it may once have held.
In the case of Vivian Maier, I believe that her place in art history is deserving and well earned. I will continue to investigate ideas regarding the “stop factor” and its relation to how humanity applies value to artistic objects, and why it does so. I finish writing with the belief that my artwork has not destroyed the artwork of another, but perhaps instead has raised some important questions on what we separately as individuals and collectively as a society hold to have artistic value or merit. I am hopeful that my artwork may be, through unintended and unforeseen developments, giving a second life and new meaning to photographs forgotten by the past. Perhaps I initially in my thinking had tunnel vision, only being able to see the photographic medium’s ability to give a second death to an individual. Perhaps the truth is that photography has the ability to not only give individuals a second death, but a second life as well.
Above: An example of my reworking of Maier's negatives circa 2010. The above three frames, displayed together as a triptych and later contact printed onto silver gelatin paper, have been burned and altered with chemicals.
Above: "Memories #7", Monotype Image transfer, coffee, and ink on paper, 22.5”x30”, 2016.
The above artwork of mine shows further reworking of Maier's imagery as it has been layered with the photographs of unknown photographers from my archive, as well as with photographs from my own family albums. Below is an artwork of mine that has made use of a 5"x7" glass plate negative along with one of Maier's 120 format film frames from my archive.
Below: "Memories #15", Monotype Image transfer, coffee, and ink on paper, 25”x38”, 2016.
For more information regarding the ideas behind my artwork, click the above button to be sent to my fine art webpage containing my artist statement.
Scott Whitworth received his BFA in photography from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Whitworth is an award-winning photographer who has traveled across the world to photograph, and he has exhibited his