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Friday, August 29

Is Vivian Maier over-rated?



The story of the shy nanny who spent her spare time chronicling the streets of Chicago and further afield on her Rolleiflex but who died under sad circumstances before anyone could appreciate her ability touched me as much as anyone else.

You can't listen to her story without being moved and the thousands of photographs she left behind are a fitting testament to her life and work. BUT, switching from heart to head, did Vivian deserve to be fast-tracked onto the list of near-mythical photographers?

Setting aside the undoubted charm and compelling appeal of her life, are her photographs really so good? Or have we been swept along by the pathos of the whole Vivian Maier back story?  I've visited the websites dealing with Vivian's work and seen the TV documentaries (haven't seen John Maloof's film yet) and really enjoy her photographs.

However, my tentative opinion is that there is a gulf between Vivian's best work and that of the acknowledged masters such as Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, and Doisneau who worked in the same genre and who were her contemporaries.

I can close my eyes and bring to mind many photographs from HCB and his ilk but there are few Maier images that have the same effect on me and most of those that do are her "selfies". This isn't just a familiarity thing, either. Obviously, I've spent longer looking at classic street photography than Maier's work but my study of her photography has been more recent.

Probably my favourite Vivian photograph.

Vivian's photography is of a standard that I imagine I or most readers could have produced given the same opportunity - and let's not forget that her opportunities were considerable. Vivian seems to have had lots and lots of spare time in between dropping off her young charges at school and, presumably, picking them up again at home time along with her free weekends.

She also seems to have had a reasonable disposable income based on the number of films she shot and the fact that she was able to afford a Rolleiflex, a camera outwith the reach of most working class people in the 1950s.

Putting Vivian's output into some perspective, the 150,000 negatives she exposed during her photographic life-time is the equivalent of eight rolls of 120 film every week for 30 years. That's prodigious. Me? I'm lucky if I get through around 40 to 50 films a year. Sometimes I'll shoot four rolls in a week - half of Vivian's work rate - but then will go two or three weeks without doing much at all.

But maybe burning huge amounts of celluloid (or polyester, or whatever) is what all truly dedicated photographers do. Then there's the fact that, to us, the scenes of Chicago and New York are just so photogenic as were the characters that frequented the mean streets in those days. Put all of that together and, as Columbo might have said, you have means, motive and opportunity for street photography.

Classic HCB.

Which of us, spending all of that time on the streets with a great camera and plenty of film, couldn't have produced a similar body of work? But match HCB? No way. I think there's a spark of genius in the fabled Frenchman.

My favourite Kertesz photograph and probably, in fact,
one of my favourite pics of all time!

This post isn't meant to disparage Vivian or her photography because I'm a great admirer, not just of her  pictures but of the fact that she had the dedication to so comprehensively chronicle an interesting period in history along with some compelling city backdrops. But I do wonder if she hasn't been elevated to that pantheon of great photographers just a little too quickly, based more on her back story than purely on her abilities as a photographer.

45 comments :

Nathan said...

I come here completely unfamiliar with any of the three, and just looking at your examples, I find Maier's work more compelling, with better storytelling and composition than HCB, and better emotional impact than Kertesz.

Tim Fitzwater said...

I just saw the Maloof film and an exhibit of prints in Canton, OH. I've also looked through lots and lots of her work on the net. My verdict is that, yes, it is that good. The one thing that bothers me is that we don't know what she would have selected and shown and how she would have printed it(or had it printed).
I like the tone of your poet, though, even though we disagree. I have heard people come out so hard against her and people so off-the-wall for it. There is plenty of room for polite disagreement on art! Everyone had their own tastes.
For example - I understand why Man Ray was important - but he does absolutely nothing for me....

Michael Stevens said...

I agree with Tim. It's hard to judge a photographer who didn't at least edit her own work even if she didn't print it herself.

I think there are some great pictures amongst the ones that I've seen, but they've been culled from thousands by someone who never even met the woman who took them.

Who knows which she would have chosen herself.

jfbonnin said...

I was offered "Out of the shadows" for my 66th birthday.

The French magazine "R├ęponses-Photo" previouly published a very documented issue about Maier's work.

I enjoyed reading the magazine and the book I received for my birthday : I myself practise black-and-white (chemical) photography since 1969, have taken hundreds of films, and feel sort of inline with Maier's photographic history.
Though I am actually and definitely conscious to be incompetent to evaluate if Maier was a photographic genius - or not, I am - literally - moved by her everyday-life pictures of NYC : this is documentary photography, and I have immense respect for her.

JF Bonnin




Bruce Robbins said...

Well, so far it looks like the answer to the question in the post title is "No"!

MartyNL said...

"Vivian's photography is of a standard that I imagine I or most readers could have produced given the same opportunity -..."

Sorry Bruce, I certainly don't feel this is true or fair. There are more cameras and images taken than ever before but there are not Cartier's, Kertesz's or Maier's for that matter on every corner/blog/website...

Nick Jardine said...

I think her images are fine, there are photographers, both professional, artistic and amateur that I think are both better and worse. It's personal taste.

The comments from Tim and Michael are important - not editing and presenting your story is pretty significant.

Think of Robert Frank's 'The Americans' - easily in the top 6 of most influential bodies of documentary work ever put into book form - yet take singular images out of the body and context and many look no more than amateur.

Then again, The Americans was pretty much edited in one day and it's initial release was not warmly welcomed. Only time and subsequent changes not only in photography but in society have made it into the classic it is.

So whether or not she may have become a recognised photographer we can't say for certain. Every other name mentioned in the article is a professional image maker and made images to share or to sell, but certainly to be displayed in public. Maier did not.

There is also a huge amount of sentimental baggage involved with her story that influence our thinking of her, not least that being given an entire BBC "imagine' programme from Alan Yentob will elevate her status amongst many.

So what I would do is actually compare her to her equivalents of the time, not Cartier-Bresson, from a very wealthy family background and a failed painter who happened to pick up a camera, but the American street photographers of that time.

Indeed, in those circles many have said her work is 'good enough' to sit along side the names of Meyerowitz, Arbus and Winogrand.

However, going back to an earlier point, she didn't publish, she didn't decide to become a photographer and call herself that. Her work was never made public and I think that works against her.

It's those street photographers who did put themselves out there, that rattled the cages, that upset society,that turned things on their head and often came up against some pretty stiff abuse that gave permission for others to follow suit. They struggled, they put everything on the line in full public view and that is what differentiates them from Maeir.

The act of putting your images out in public is all part of being a documentary photographer, because if you're not telling a story or highlighting an aspect of life you think is worth telling people about, then you become little more than a voyeur. The images are for you and your pleasure.

One of the greatest acts of defiance in any art form during the 20th century was John Cage's '4.33'. For those that need reminding, it's completely silent. He was ridiculed and praised for that work and it was often pointed out to him that,

'anyone could have written it'

Cage's reply was 'But they didn't".

Maier never put herself into that position of vulnerability, and that was her greatest failing as a photographer.

David M said...

When I heard of her, I was inclined to be dismissive. It looked so much like commercial opportunity or perhaps part of the search for female role models.
Then I watched the film. She's clearly a talented photographer, in the sense of having a felicitous and personal eye. Certainly better than monkey-and-typewriter. We can't judge her as a printer.
Time is really needed to see how she fits into the hierarchy. Very much better than I'd feared.
Her lifestyle is astonishing. All those negatives, all that work, simply hidden away in storage, not even seen by her. What can have motivated her? Apparently some of her personal papers were thrown away, so we may never know.

Doug H said...

I have only the 1st of her books, but have seen the movie. Her work is compelling. As Joel Meyerowitz states in the movie, she had the ability to get in close to the people without making them self-conscious - a definite gift for street photography.
Was she as good as HCB or many of the other greats? Not so sure, but she sure beats out people like Winogrand.

Charles Woodhouse said...

Somebody -- I can't remember who -- pointed out that she only had a "normal" lens with which to work. Look at how many of her street portraits fill the frame, indicating how close she was to the subject, yet the subject looks natural and un-selfconscious. That's pretty amazing.

Ravi Bindra said...

Yes she took a lot of photos on very expensive film (look back at relative incomes and costs) and she had an expensive camera (actually all cameras were expensive back then, but some more than others). This is all irrelevant.

She did take many compelling photos and her body of work shows an era, that has not been shown before in such depth. How many images are there of the "underclasses" from the post war years? She also took these photos on her own doorstep - how many of us have to go somewhere exotic to see images?

Donato Chirulli said...

First of all, thanks for bringin' us the suggestion about V.M.
I just watched the website and I have to say: YES, she was at the same highness as HCB or Doisneau...
(btw I'm a street photographer too and follow the line of Humanistic street of HCB and Doisneau. I wrote a book about Street Photography too and so on...)
Apart from the incredible documentary body of work, I have to say she was definately a visionary and it's incredible the contrast beetween her strictly private vision of photography (carefully hided negatives) Vs. the actual "compulsive" posting era by whoever has something that makes "clicl".... Great are the self-portraits too, often with more than one images in a complex reflextions game....

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think she is over-rated and I think she deserves more respect than you're giving her. Seriously. You've had a few years with not much to do and I don't read of your cameras producing 3 rolls a day, every day ! I see very little being produced beyond this talk show.

She produced an incredible volume of work and she never sought any fame, or funds, from her efforts. She produced it with a fairly basic camera, without a digital machine gun shutter and 18 mpix sensor. I challenge you to find a similar output from any other amateur photographer.

IF her best pictures had appeared on the front page of LIFE magazine, IF she had been given assignments by Vogue magazine, it's likely she would have been famous alongside the great street photographers. The fact is, her work wasn't edited, because she didn't have an audience; she didn't have a brief, because she never published. I anticipate that her best 100 would be a terrific collection, if only her divided work is put back together into a single archive.

Her work is real and down to earth. It's the opposite of those that seek fame without ability. Pick on Steve a Huff, Eric Kim, Thorsten Overthetop. These people want recognition first and foremost, their work is secondary to their ambitions to be celebrities.

It's clear that she filled her time doing what she wanted, which is what most of us want. She did, we don't.

Gary

Jeff L said...

My opinion is a resounding "NO"

Nick Jardine said...

Gary,

Firstly, there's a lot of 'If's' - if only this had happened, or that, or whatever. It didn't, thats the point. I could beat Usain Bolt 'if' I could only run the 100 in 9 seconds. You can only deal with facts, not speculation based on a number of 'if only's' - it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

For me the issue isn't about the photographs, many of which are very fine, the issue is about not 'making public' on her part but also about the media hype that has surrounded her discovery.

The other thing you shouldn't do is mix up timeframes. Judge her on the photography of the day and amongst her peers. There is little value in judging her on 'digital' technology and modern photographers.

Even within our own lifetimes street photography and candid portraiture has changed. The general public are much more aware of the power and potential misuse of photography, and your more likely to be told to 'get lost' in today's world.

Back in the 40's to 60's this kind of photography was still novel and people would be happy to pose or at least, wouldn't mind. They are different world's inhabited by different mind sets and attitudes - especially to gender.

Do Maier's photograph's tell me anything new that I haven't already seen in other street photographer's work of the time ?

No they don't. Thats not to say they aren't good, or worthwhile or that I'm not appreciative.

The power of editing and the book format are central to the issue for me. Many books were published out of a sense of sharing, or for a political viewpoint, a social conscience as well as making enough money to put food on your table to feed yourself and your family - thats what many of the early street and documentary photographers chose. It's hardly the 'fame and fortune' you mention.

Look at Franks 'The Americans' or Winogrand's 'The Animals' or Bill Egglestone's 'Guide' and you will see what Maier never achieved, or never even took the risk to achieve, or indeed, if she ever intended to achieve at all. And if any modern book truly sums up the generosity of amateur photography, have a look at Tacita Deans' 'Floh' - (Flea), a collection of photographs she discovered at Flea markets across Europe and compiled and edited into book form.

It's a beguiling tale of lives, of thoughts and moments, often banal and definitely amateur that somehow manages to touch and engage. For me it defines the power of the book - to edit and weave narratives that show a purpose of thought.

Making public is what differentiates 'professional' from 'journeyman' - it doesn't mean that the photography itself is any better or worse, but the desire to share visual stories is, and that is surely what photography is all about.

Maybe, like Arbus, she felt a need to find others 'like her', that the act of taking photographs was enough in itself to fulfil her needs - but unlike Arbus who put her vulnerability front and centre into public view because she was a photographer by trade, and called herself that.

In this scenario, Bruce by publishing his blog, putting his images and work methods up for scrutiny into the public realm, achieves more than Maier.

Maybe the greatest discredit to Maier's work are the very people that put what was undoubtedly an extremely private collection into the public realm, the people that elevated her status and made films about her. Who gave them the right to do so ? Isn't their a huge hypocrisy at play here by those film makers using her work to further their own public careers ?

Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

Thanks for posting the link to the photographs Bruce. IMO the photographs chosen for exhibit on the "web" are on a par with "street photography" done by other photographers that we all know, revere, and respect.

Elliot

John Carter said...

I saw Robert Franck's (sp?) exhibit in San Francisco. Part of the presentation were contact prints with his notes. He had a lot of misses just like the rest of us. Vivian shot film for herself not for public consumption. Maybe she just didn't care what we thought, and at the same time wasn't moved by fads. I see much fad photography especially today, which I don't particular enjoy. Along with using a TLR and a fresh view of the world around her, I feel has a place in photographic history.

Richard G said...

I think that we fear over-rating her. Joel Meyerowitz makes an insightful point in the trailer for the documentary: she must have had an extraordinary knack for establishing a quick rapport with her street subjects. I'd like to see the documentary. A photo that sticks in my mind is from the same beach, presumably, and possibly the same girl. Two girls lean against a wire fence. One is upright, perhaps slightly deferential, the other is reclining, looking down to the space between them, smiling perhaps in remembrance of something or at what she has just said or revealed. You don't see a smile like that in a photograph very often.

Skellum said...

Ok, anyone here wish they had taken this?

http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-2/#slide-12

This would be a great image whoever took it, and it took me about 30 seconds to find on the VM site. There are plenty like this- and no, not just any of us could have done this. To suggest she got results just by burning film is a bit demeaning.
And no, she didn't publish so we'll never know which images SHE thought mattered, but none the less the images exist, and we can have our opinion on them
Damn good, I think.
I won't be leaving anything to match, and I know it.

Bruce Robbins said...

It's a good photo but are you really saying you wouldn't have spotted it had you been on that street?

Giovanni said...

"Which of us, spending all of that time on the streets with a great camera and plenty of film, couldn't have produced a similar body of work?"

My answer to your very pretentious and most likely deliberately provocative question would be "very few, if none".
Maier's talent was not just about volume. Look at her contact sheets, they don't lie.
I respect your point of view but I don't understand the point in comparing photographers (Bresson, Kertesz, Doisneau and Maier) with such different backgrounds, stories and most of all visions. All of them are unique, photography is not a horse race; the fact that all these people had a camera (like we do) doesn't put them on the same level.

Antonio Aparicio said...

Let's see if my comments get through this time:

I agree with the general thesis put forward by the article. Much as I do love a lot of VM's images, I do feel they are overrated.

Context is everything and I feel both the backstory and the time that has elapsed have created an aura around this work that affects how it is seen.

We are naturally fascinated by images of decades past, particularly those of places and times we were not able to experience fist hand. This is the main attraction of her work. But she. Is not one of the greats.

Andrew Lamb said...

I really like her work and don't think she's over-rated. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how she sits in the pantheon of photographic greats once the initial excitement, over her, dies down.

Juha H said...

HCB did not show his contact sheets to public. Mayer have them all there...

I was yesterday on the road (street) with my Rolleiflex and yes, how close you have to go with that to have the picture!

Mayer and many else great artists had a somekind of mental X, which helped their art very much: To go close, to write straight etc.

Bruce Robbins said...

Antonio,
Thanks for your patience regarding your comments. We'll probably never know why they were disappearing but at least the system is working fine - at least for the present!

George McClintock Photography said...

"It's a good photo but are you really saying you wouldn't have spotted it had you been on that street?" Sorry, Bruce, I think your argument is inane. Critique is clearly not your strong suit.

Bruce Robbins said...

About as inane as your comment then George since the sentence you quoted isn't a critique but an observation. In fact, the post is an opinion piece with no attempt at critique at all. There are plenty of online dictionaries if you're struggling with the difference.

As for the pic to which my quote refers, it's a nice image but it's such an obvious shot that you would need to be artistically dead not to have noticed it.

George McClintock Photography said...

Critique IS opinion, hopefully informed opinion, but opinion nonetheless. An "opinion piece with no attempt at critique at all" is not worth reading. For your own edification, read Baudelaire, then Barthes, on photography.

Bruce Robbins said...

Yes, but opinion isn't critique. Thanks for the reading list but I'll stick with Oor Wullie and The Broons.

Daniel D. Teoli jr. said...

I posted a similar reply to Eric Kims blog but he deleted it. I will see if you will be more open to the discussion.

Maier's work has nostalgic value. That is what makes it 'seem' to be great work. Take a nothing photo, age it 50 to 75 years, now it is a masterpiece.

I like a handful of her images. The rest are not that much...more snapshot like. She is promoted for $ to make the neg stash profitable for the people peddling prints. It is a business, nothing else.

She may be deserving of an award for the huge amount of images she produced. But I would think for taking tens of thousands of images she would have done better.

Anyway, I'm grateful her images survived for historical value. I wonder how many photogs were not as lucky.

Look at this wonderful shot Winogrand produced...

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Garry-WINOGRAND-Women-Are-Beautiful-c-1970-Printed-1981-Silver-Print-SIGNED-/320947133342?pt=Art_Photo_Images&hash=item4ab9f09b9e

Isn't it fantastic!

I blame the curators (academics) and the greedy galleries owners, none of which are museum photgs themselves, for promoting poor photography.

Anonymous said...

"Vivian's photography is of a standard that I imagine I or most readers could have produced given the same opportunity"

My friend, please give her a bit more credit then that.. If I, or you, or anyone else could create equally engaging and interesting photographs we would be famous photographers. Especially since the majority of "us" do post our images online..

I understand the appeal of vintage photos being higher than that of modern day photographs. But I still believe that Vivian Maier was a master in her own right.

I would also like to add that I am not a massive fan of her. I do see her photographs as special, yes. But I am more interested in photographers such as Zoe Strauss, Alex Webb and Bruno Barbey. Much differnet style than Vivian Maier.

Thank you

Skellum said...

Sorry I haven't been here for a few days. Re your reply to my previous post-
"Am I really saying that I wouldn't have seen this"
There is more to it, of course. Would I even have been there- it seems Maier was compelled to prowl the worst neighbourhoods. She chose to go to difficult uncomfortable places. Are either of us doing that now, Bruce?
No we aren't, although we could. She worked at finding such images.
Next up, even had we been there, and had we seen it, would we have got the shot? Would you, or I, have put ourselves right on the spot at just the right moment?
Maybe she had to wait for the shot- are we all confident and determined enough to do that in public. No self consciousness?
Last- in Britain today, are you confident that photographing other peoples children wouldn't lead to trouble? Would I, or any of us, now pass on some potential images to avoid the possibility of trouble?
Street photography is not like landscape or studio work. It calls for a self confidence and ability to decide in a flash what the heart of the shot should be.
When I shoot 5x4 landscapes, one exposure might take 30 minutes of assessment and waiting for the right light.

Am I really saying I wouldn't have seen this?
I'm saying that there's more involved than 'just' seeing an opportunity, and I certainly do not think that anyone at all could have brought this image home.
Cheers!

John said...

Bresson, Doisneau and certainly Kertesz were not her contemporaries, all being considerably older than her and not to mention, working in France for the large part. Of a similar age and working around the same time and country were Callahan, Frank and Winogrand. However, I'd agree that there is probably more Doisneau in her than any of the latter and I think it's fair to say she would have been better versed in that era of photography. Her work is aesthetically dated once you take away the square format and any parallels people draw with Arbus for that reason.

I'm not too sure on the figures, but 8 rolls of 120 a week is not a lot of film burning for a street photographer. Traditional 35mm street photographers like Winogrand may have got through several a day, often with multiple images of the same scene/subject.

On the general sentiment of the post however, I agree that she wasn't in the same league as her contemporaries. The cultural probing and more cutting observations of Frank and Winogrand aren't there. She was a sentimentalist all said and done, something which knocks her back a decade or so, putting her in a bit of a 'naive artist' kind of sphere. Still, her work is a very enjoyable, rare and crystal vision of late 50/60s Chicago.

Bruce Robbins said...

Excellent comment, John.

Bardo1971 said...

There is a Vivian Maier exhibit on this year´s photoespa├▒a. The description of Vivian Maier reads "... a reference of street photography...". I have been in photography for over 20 years, studied all the big photographers in different areas (documentary, fashion, photojournalism, etc), yet I hardly heard of Vivian Maier. Looking at the pictures nobody can deny that its an excellent work, there are some really great photos. Many of them, however, are catching because of the testimony of an era ie documentary photography. I do not agree that she is a "reference". In fact, I found this blog by searching "VMaier overrated" in google...
On another note, i am not sure about this "street photography" hype with all these workshops happening everywhere and all these posts and videos by a guy named Kim... who? Now, if to be a photographer all i have to do is invade peoples personal space and get them to look at me to have a "great shot"... what is creative about this? your lens or exposure choice? come on. Yes, there were some great ones doing this in the 70s and 80s, move on, please.

Gvande said...

She is recognized for her passion and vision of life around her, bringing enthusiasm and joy rarely if ever seen. She shows us how to love street photography. It's not my thing, but I appreciate her feeling.

Bruce Robbins said...

Well, Gvande, I don't know about any of that. We know very little of her and can only guess at her motivation. She certainly had no intention of showing anybody anything, least of all her photographs which were largely hidden away. I don't think her solitary, almost reclusive, lifestyle reveals anything at all about passion or joy. I think we can safely say she had a good eye for a photograph and must have enjoyed her photography but beyond that is anybody's guess.

Michael said...

Vivian Maier might be overrated by some people, but I'd like to go back to the idea that anyone shooting the same amount of film in the same places and with the same courage (it takes guts to shoot people the way she did, WLF or no WLF) would have produced an equivalent body of work. That's precisely the point (or at least one of them): almost no one does, and this very dedication is, for a large part, what separates first rate artists from the rest of us. Remember what Romain Rolland said as a definition of heroism? "A hero is someone who does what he or she can. The others don't".

Bruce Robbins said...

Good point, Michael.

Paul Blanchard said...

Of course she is not with us to defend herself but I speculate she would probably not do so. She took more negatives than most of us will do in a long lifetime and lived for Rollei photography in a day when many in UK had to take care to have the cash to buy one film at a time. This was the post war contrast in UK/USA and in all her negatives she hit the target far more than might be predicted. I think this is her talent. The rest of us were at other work/in the services/at school during much of the period.

martwwa said...

A resounding "NO". If anything VM is vastly UNDERRATED. I defy ANYONE to compare VM's contact sheets with any of the greats. Her success rate, frame-after-frame, I venture, has no equal. It's in the contact sheets, folks.

Michael Chay said...

I also agree that it's nearly self-evident that having opportunity alone will produce first-rate or even marginally interesting work by merely compete photographers. We should now be swimming in masterpieces if that were the case. On the other hand one might at least consider how many exposures had to be gone through to produce a relative few great images. In my book that slightly lowers my estimation (Maier is hardly alone in this category, of course). But in the end, I think the problem is in the idea of ranking any sort of art. We like to do it, of course--everyone loves a horse race--but it's an paradoxical response to art, which ,like love and religion, should transcend notions of rantings and competition. All that can meaningfully be said is whether one was moved, and sometimes whether the experience could have been stronger, but in the end it's probably best to enjoy each image as a unique experience and turn off these other inner voices.

Michael Chay said...

I meant to write "merely COMPETENT photographers ...."

Paul Blanchard said...

Not really to the point but if you buy one of the DVD's on her work do make sure you get it in UK format-I did'nt !

shaun Vickers said...

I've read most of the comments on this post and as a practitioner and someone who has studied and taught photography up to HE I am stunned that you're even having this conversation. Perhaps Vivian's images aren't as memorable as HCB's, just to be compared to debatebly the most influential photographer of all time, she was a nanny! Ms Maier was without doubt truly gifted, she was shooting predominately with a twin lens medium format, imagine what she may have achieved with a Leica. In addition, she was not alone when it came to not processing and printing work, Gary Winogrand another giant among street photographers also left 1000's of rolls. When I think of her the old philosophical question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"springs to mind, I feel we are so fortunate to have her work, not only for its historical value, but for the brilliance and curiosity of her eye.