Art and Architecture, Biography, Reviews

Review: Pamela Bannos’ “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife”

(Photograph from the Ron Slattery negative collection. Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier, copyright 2017 The Estate of Vivian Maier. All rights reserved.)

During her lifetime Vivian Maier was unknown. A social recluse with a day job as a nanny and a habit of wandering about with her Rolleiflex, snapping photographs of the daily goings-on of the various places she inhabited throughout her life, including France, New York, L. A., and of course Chicago, where she lived for most of her life. She died in 2009, at the age of 82, the bulk of her photographic work filed away or abandoned in storage lockers, perhaps never to be seen again, were it not for its discovery by a cadre of lucky collectors who stumbled upon her work at auction.

Soon after, the thousands of images she had created over her long photographic career went viral, and her work has since been lauded as some of the most iconic street photography of the twentieth century.

Since her ouvre’s discovery and popularization, however, a particular narrative has developed surrounding her life and work, as Parul Sehgal notes in a recent article for the New York Times: “Stories—like snapshots—are shaped by people, and for particular purposes. There’s always an angle.” And until recently, the only angle on Maier’s work has been one shaped almost entirely by the collectors that own the rights to her work.

Northwestern University professor of photography Pamela Bannos’s new biography of the photographer’s life and work aims to correct that.

Sehgal writes,

A new biography, Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife, by Pamela Bannos, strives to rescue Maier all over again, this time from the men who promulgated the Maier myth and profited off her work. . . . Almost point by point,  Bannos refutes how Maier has been marketed. And she looks at how it has benefited [the image rights holders] to present Maier as a strange, incapable wraith, how it made them look all the more heroic, and allowed them to cavalierly overlook her absolute unwillingness to show her work  publicly. . . . Biographies and documentaries can tempt us the same way. They can offer the fantasy of absolute knowledge, absolute possession (perhaps this is how Maloof went astray).  The achievement of Bannos’s intelligent, irritable self-reflexive study is in its restraint. She unseats the ghost and restores to us the woman—but in her own words and images, and without psychologizing. It’s a portrait as direct as any of Maier’s, and what a distinct pleasure it is to meet her gaze again.

In the Nation, meanwhile, Jillian Steinhauer writes,

The highest value of Bannos’s book is that it contains an incredible amount of contextual information, more than has ever been uncovered or synthesized about Maier before. At last, we have a way of separating the individual from the myths that have been constructed around her.

While collectors may have brought Maier’s work to light, with the first serious look at Maier’s life and art, Bannos’s biography brings it back into true focus.