Stephen Bulger Discusses His Decision To Buy Vivian Maier Negatives With CBC Radio

Vivian Maier

Photo © Vivian Maier, Negative In The Collection of Stephen Bulger Gallery

Streetshootr broke the news when The Stephen Bulger Gallery purchased Jeffrey Goldstein’s entire collection of Vivian Maier negatives. In a recent interview with CBC Radio’s Studio Q, Stephen Bulger discusses his decision to buy the negatives and the importance of Vivian’s work in general. Hit the jump for this candid and revealing interview.

Stephen Bulger On Buying Vivian Maier Negatives

After much deliberation, Stephen Bulger made the decision to purchase Jeffrey Goldstein’s entire collection of Vivian Maier negatives even though copyright concerns prevent him from showing or selling the work at this time. Stephen sat down with CBC Radio’s popular Studio Q radio talk show to discuss the implications of Vivian’s work and what motivated his decision to purchase the negatives.

The full interview is embedded below:

And here’s the full transcript:

CBC Studio Q: For 40 years, photographer Vivian Maier toiled in secret. Those who knew her, knew her as a nannny. But outside of that job Vivian was a prolific photographer. Quietly hitting the streets of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, she snapped more than 150,000 photos.

Most of her shots are small urban moments rendered in black and white. Two girls slouching on a doorstep or an older woman sleeping on a bench. Her stark yet intimate style is detailed in the 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. Here’s a clip:

As she was photographing, she was seeing just how close you can come into somebody’s space. That tells me a lot about her. She could get them to accomodate her by being themselves. She could generate this moment. And then she’s gone. –Joel Meyerowitz

That’s a clip from the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. In 2007, boxes of Vivian’s Maier’s negatives were discovered and auctioned off by the owners of a storage locker she’d abandoned. Maier died 2 years later and since then interest in her work has been growing and a copyright battle has been brewing. Amid this my next guest has managed to purchase more than 17,000 of her negatives. Stephen Bulger is a Toronto based photographer and the owner of The Stephen Bulger Gallery. He is with me now in Studio Q.

Hello Stephen, how’s it going?

Stephen Bulger: Great, Damon, how are you?

Q: Oh I’m pretty good! Thank you so much for coming in today. A fascinating story, incredible photographs, it has all the makings, as we were saying before we started this interview, of a great Hollywood film.

Bulger: Exactly.

Q: How did you first become interested in the work of Vivian Maier?

Bulger: It was first through a story I read in the New York Times Magazine, that came out in, I think, around 07 or 09? And I was struck by the pictures initially and then the story was quite intriguing. There’s a lot of us in my business, that talk about who we think has been overlooked. But we’ve never imagined that someone of this talent would be completely unknown. So that was something that continued to fascinate me. The more I looked at the pictures, the more I became fascinated in her.

Vivian Maier

Photo © Vivian Maier, Negative In The Collection of Stephen Bulger Gallery

Q: So you bought a huge chunk of her negatives, 17,000 of her negatives. Why was this decision so important to you?

Bulger: Well it seemed that they were under threat in some ways. That, as you were mentioning, there was a copyright dispute with Cook County, Illinois, who’s come forward and is really insisting that they have owership of the copyright and wanted, apparently, to take posession of the negatives so they could start to apply for copyright, or register for copyright for each one of these pictures. And Jeffrey Goldstein, who I’ve done a couple of exhibitions of and who over a number of years built up this collection of 17,500 Vivian Maier negatives really thought that Toronto would be a safe haven for them. And I think that he was wanting also to get back to his own life which he was enjoying before he got into his Vivian Maier project.

Q: So in your view, how culturally significant was the finding of Vivian Maier’s photographs? Because she’s now being compared to some of the great photographers, street photographers, of all time. How significant was this particular find though?

Bulger: Well, it’s really unprecedented. In total there’s about 150,000 negatives, it seems, and the fact that she was performing at such a high level and everyone could see her doing this. She’s be wearing cameras on a day by day basis and taking them while she was working as a nanny as well as in her off hours. And yet she was intensely private with everything including these photographs. So they’re not photographs that she shared with anyone. Which is quite unusual. Like` usually people are engaging in photography, if it’s not just a personal pursuit, to then basically show how they’re illustrating their view point of the world. And it’s something that Vivian was quite good at doing, but just didn’t show them to anyone.

Q: Well we’ll get to the secrecy of Vivian’s work in a second. But interest, as you mentioned, kind of surged with that New York Times Magazine article and of course, now, this documentary. How would you think, I guess cynics would say, how much of this is just a good story versus great art?

Bulger: Oh, and that’s something I was certainly on that fence for a while myself because it’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. The way it’s supposed to happen is that a curator makes a discover and provides the context for an artist and then puts together a thesis about that, an exhibition that’s usually accompanied with a book publication. And by the time the public comes to see the work for the first time, this artist has been canonized by people in the know. This happened completely opposite to that. They were found in a storage auction and then subsequently auctioned off to a number of different people and it took a couple of years for the quality of the work to become evident to the people that even owned it. And then the people that owned the work, especially John Maloof, started to put things up on the web. And then the public discovered her first. And the public canonized her and then the curators were left scrambling trying to figure out who was this woman and what is all this hype? And what I find interesting is that people tend to come into the Vivian Maier story through her story which is quite fantastic. But then it’s the photographs that hook them and then give that much more resonance to the story. Because if the photographs weren’t as good as they are, noone would care that much about the story.

Q: You mentioned being posted first on social media and this seems like Vivian Maier is very much a 21st century phenomenon. Like this couldn’t happen in any other time. Be it the fact that the subject matter is street photography at a time when everyone is essentially a street photographer. The fact that it was first shown on social media. How much of that has played in the builiding of the legend?

Bulger: Oh I think that’s a big part of it and also she sort of straddles two things. She could not be anything but an analog photography story either. Because if she had been a street shooter now and had left things on digital cards or whatever type of filing system she would have used, those digital files are a lot more fugitive than images on negatives. So by the time they would have come to open up these storage lockers, again, it would be like 30 years in the future from now, there’d be nothing there. So it’s the fact that these things were shot on film is why they were salvaged or salvagable.

Q: Vivian Maier was clearly passionate about photography and took about a roll of film a day, they say. She was an extremely private person. What is your sense of why she kept this passion for photography so secret and so much to herself?

Bulger: Well, that’s the $64,000,000 question.

Vivian Maier Street Photography Negatives

Photo © Vivian Maier, Negative In The Collection of Stephen Bulger Gallery

Q: And also completely counter to what people would do today!

Bulger: Well, it certainly is, but there is a letter that she apparently wrote to a printer in France, and this letter is read for the first time in John Maloof’s film. And in this letter, Vivian is acknowledging the skills of this printer in France that she had used for some of the pictures that she had been taking over there. And in that letter she acknowledges how great his printing is, how she doesn’t have the ability to print very well herself, but also there’s an acknowledgement that she thinks she has negatives that are worth showing to other people. And thought that perhaps they could work out some type of partnership where she could take these photographs, send them to him, he could print them and then send them back to her. Presumably to show to other people in an exhibition or whatever.

That letter was never received by the person it as addressed to. Why, we’re really not sure. What I find fascinating is that I do think that above all else, Vivian was a real victim of her time. If you look at the curatorial world, especially in photography, circa 1970, which was sort of when she was at her height, you could say. If she had the nerve to approach one of these curators she would have had a tough time of it. It was a very male dominated society. The only women that were able to break through to see these curators had some sort of photo/street cred. Whether they got it from photojournalism or fashion in the case of Diane Arbus. You know people like Margaret Bourke White could get in to see people like John Szarkowski, I really don’t think they would have given Vivian the time of day.

Q: Vivian left a lot of her photographs undeveloped and we don’t know which ones she liked, which ones she didn’t, which ones she would have chose to develop, which ones she would have cropped. How do you as the curator now that’s discovered her work and is passionate about her work, go about interpreting her intentions?

Bulger: That’s the really tricky part for me and I know when I did my first exhibition it was based on a book that came from the Jeffrey Goldstein collection called Out Of The Shadows so with all exhibitions I trying to precis the body of work that’s in front of me. So my first exhibition was really a precis of that first publication of Goldstein’s collection and in there, there was a lot of self portraits that really fascinate me. So I did the exhibition and was really happy with it until a few days into the exhibition, I started to… At that point certainly I’d read everything I could have about Vivian and because she was so intensely private, I felt somewhat odd being the person who had so much of her on display. And I wasn’t really sure how she would have felt about that. And having a gallery for 20 years and doing may exhibitions that it was really the first time I ever doubted or questioned whether the photographer would have been happy with what I did. And then there’s the public enthusiasm about the work, like we never had so many people flocking to the gallery to come and see an exhibition before. Many of these people are people who never come into galleries anyway but again there’s something about Vivian that people feel protective of and curious about and people were coming in droves. You know, I’m here to promote photography and excellent photography and I didn’t think this should be any different. So for my next exhibition, I did one where I went through the Goldstein collection and edited out photographs of children because I thought that was something Vivian might have enjoyed seeing. And I actually felt a lot better about that second exhibition in terms of thinking that it was something that Vivian would have liked.

Q: Going through the 17,000 negatives, I’m sure you’ve gone through them all by now, do you feel close to her? Like someone who’s shrowded in so much mystery, how do you feel now having this intimate sort of relationship with these negatives?

Bulger: Ya, they’re quite revealing and very personal and some of it is reading someone’s diary after they’re dead. It’s a little unnerving at times. It’s not something I’ve ever done before so it’s, I think Jeffrey Goldstein put it that best when he was saying that his role in all this is trying to promote Vivian’s work to the public without looking like a complete jerk while doing it.

Q: But there is two poles, right? There’s that ghost of a this very private woman, Vivian Maier, who we don’t know for sure what her intentions with these photographs are, and there’s also this other pole which is sharing this great body of work with the public. Is that constantly something that weighs on you, or are you at this time kind of at peace with it?

Bulger: No, I think the work is so good that it should get out there and also I think that there is evidence during her lifetime that she had these aspirations. And so I feel very much that we’re helping to play catch-up a little bit. Trying to get this work out there.

Vivian Maier Street Photography Negatives

Photo © Vivian Maier, Negative In The Collection of Stephen Bulger Gallery

Q: Well, it’s impossible to talk about art history without talking about incomplete works. And without them we couldn’t have works from Dickenson, Khafka, Coolidge, Henry Darger, the list goes on and on. But should the public’s appetite for an artist’s work outweigh the intention of the artist?

Bulger: No, and in this case I don’t think it does. I think if we found evidence that she said that she didn’t want this stuff at all. Or if maybe she had ordered someone to take this stuff and burn it and that person decided not to do that and then took them out and exposed it, I would have a real serious issue with something like that. This I find is something completely different, there’s certainly a number of people that feel close to Vivian and are very worried about what people like me or John Maloof are going to do with her memory. That’s something that we take very seriously and we’re trying our absolute best to promote her as best we can and give her the recognition that she really deserves. I think the real tragedy is that this didn’t happen while she was alive but the other option would be just to put it back into a storage locker and not show them to anyone. I don’t see what purpose that would serve. I think that people should feel more confidence in what they’re doing and there’s a lot of people that I think are getting overlooked that are making real serious contributions in a lot of different fields. And I don’t think that kind of creativity should be supressed.

Q: Well, there’s always that cliche about an artist never being discovered until after their death. Do you think she would have been discovered, if this sort of incredible breadth of work had been discovered while she was alive, do you think there would have been the same sort of fanaticism for her?

Bulger: Good question, and it’s something I’ve been wondering about and I’m really not sure. Because there are a lot of people that are very poor editors of their work and there’s no evidence that she had that skill. She was quite gifted at taking photographs and very intimate ones. But there’s no evidence that shows that she was able to pick what 9 curators out of 10 would consider the best work. It’s not obvious that she would have made those same choices and that’s not fault of hers. There’s many artists that are really bad editors of their own work and also bad a promoting themselves and getting the work out there and what have you. That’s what my job is with a lot of the artists that I represent. They should just be able to concentrate on creating beautiful work and I’m there to do the after work. In this case I’m doing that for Vivian. I don’t know if she would have been very good at doing it during her lifetime.

Q: Do you think, as a curator, this is probably your most creative project you’ve ever undertaken?

Bulger: I would say yes just because there’s so much license. Because usually I can go back and read about the intention of the artist and, again, I’m just trying to put my take on someone’s work that’s already out there and understood and try and find sort of new avenues into it. In the case of Vivian, I’m completely left on my own and quite a bit in the dark about the whole thing.

Q: There are so many mysteries about Vivian Maier’s work and she’s no longer with us to answer them. What’s the most important thing you would have liked to have asked her if you had the chance?

Bulger: I think it would be what type of photographs she liked the most? Was it the portraits? Was it the abstractions? Was it the self portraits? And is there anything in the that she would have liked to have had a first exhibition of?

Q: Thank you so much, Stephen for sitting down with me. Stephen Bulger is a Toronto based photographer and the owner of The Stephen Bulger Gallery. He joined my here today in Studio Q.

StreetShootr’s Take

I personally interviewed Stephen Bulger for our story that broke the news of the sale of Vivian Maier negatives and was struck by the integrity of his intentions. It’s easy to criticize someone in the context of purchasing a large body of an artist’s work but when you can actually hear his voice I think you’d agree with me. Stephen has a love for the medium of photography and his intentions are to preserve the work and prevent it from falling into the hands of a bureaucracy that would only see it for it’s dollar value.

But apart from justifying his purchase of Vivian Maier negatives, it’s nice to hear a discussion that considers the work itself. Vivian Maier’s story is captivating but her work is often polarizing and people often find that the more they see of her work the greater their appreciation of it becomes. With a bit of luck, all of the copyright issues will be resolved and the work can return to its rightful place on gallery walls around the globe.


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