Personal photography has turned out to be the most surprising visual phenomenon of this era, the delighted discovery of millions around the world who find that their cellphones provide a playful form of art and a welcome and sometimes annoying method of self-expression.
They use photos to display themselves on Instagram and establish their status as ingenious and up-to-date contributors to the current human drama. Drake has a song, Emotionless, about a girl who always wanted to see Rome but, when she got there, did nothing but post pictures home. All that mattered, Drake says, was leaving an impression. In New York and Los Angeles you can visit studios where, for a price, elaborate sets provide the backdrop that superior selfies need. It becomes an exhilarating competition.
This mass addiction might have pushed professional photography aside but the opposite is the case. Photography classed as art has never been more honoured. At auction, collectors pay in the $10,000 range for a single print by such artists as Irving Penn, Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus.
Universities now study the output of photographers and often hire them as teachers. The humanities archive at the University of Texas at Austin holds five million negatives and prints and has platoons of scholars poring over them. In that context, photography has become an established practice, like painting.
Some of the most attractive work in recent years has been produced by artists who never or rarely saw their own work printed out. In Chicago in 2007 a storage company auctioned off the contents of several customers who had failed to pay the rent for their unclaimed boxes. Among those at the auction was John Maloof, who was researching a book on Chicago. On a hunch he bought a collection of negatives belonging to a self-taught and totally unknown artist who turned out to be a true wonder, Vivian Maier.
Maloof eventually learned that for decades, Maier worked as a nanny and took photographs, thousands of them, in her time off. She died penniless in 2009, before anyone saw her work. Apparently she had no idea how good she was, but when connoisseurs saw her photos, she acquired a posthumous reputation.
In 2013, Maloof and Charlie Siskel made a documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Her audience expanded and her black-and-white photos of children became favourites. Joel Meyerowitz, another street photographer, says that Maier's work is "suffused with the kind of human understanding, warmth and playfulness that proves she was a real shooter." An international exhibit of her work, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, is showing now at the Hamilton Art Gallery.
Brilliant books of photography appear often these days, one of the most captivating being The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (University of Texas Press), a professional who was as eccentric in his way as Maier. He roamed the streets of New York looking for subjects, and (with support from the Museum of Modern Art) became known for his ability to capture the off-beat and quirky. In most cases he took only one shot, often unbalanced but just as often stimulating.
His book carries an excellent commentary by Geoff Dyer, who says he thinks of Winogrand "as a visual novelist, and his work a sprawling human comedy."
His technique was to grab a moment as it flew past. A typical Winogrand image catches an event as it unfolds, often making us imagine what happened before and after the photo was taken. His trick was to generate narratives in the viewer's mind: What made those lonely people so sad? What joy lies behind that glowing smile? Why are these so apparently different people gathered in one place? When he died in 1984, at age 56, Winogrand left only negatives for thousands of his photos; they are at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
For years after his death, other professionals printed them. In 2013 a major retrospective of his work in San Francisco held nearly 100 photos of the reality Winogrand captured but never saw.