Vivian Maier's photographs elevated a woman thought merely to be a reclusive former suburban nanny into an international phenomenon. Her life was presented as a mystery; her work, miraculous. None of this impressed Northwestern University photography professor Pamela Bannos when she took her class to see the first show of Maier's work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011.
"It wasn't her work that stood out, it was the way her life was being presented in display cases," Bannos remembered. "This little rubber-banded bundle was on display like an artifact, and the first thing that I thought of was how weird it was that this woman who nobody knew anything about was on such display amidst her photographs."
Bannos attributes the longstanding impression of Maier the mystery woman to her main collector, John Maloof, who in addition to several other people, purchased the contents of Maier's storage locker in 2007, and who set the narrative of his muse with his 2011 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.
"His documentary about her is essentially a documentary about him trying to find her," Bannos said. "He very selectively was giving and withholding information about her, stating instead that he had some peculiar details about her life. Everyone had to wait until the book came out, and then until the movie came out, and so the strategy of keeping her a mysteryand then she actually remains a mysterywhat might reveal her intentions never become exposed."
It's become clear to Bannos over the years that not only does Maloof's official Vivian Maier website perpetuate several inaccuracies about the photographer, but that the woman herself has been removed from her own story.
"She and her story have been defined by the men who acquired her stuff," Bannos said. "And she had no say in the way that she's been defined or her photographs have been characterized or produced or displayed and published and sold."
Bannos' Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife is an exhaustively researched biography of a woman who, perhaps because of a combination of life circumstance and personality, could be genuinely hard to research. Bannos traveled to New York and around Chicago to the scenes of many of Maier's photos, and even followed Maier's footsteps to her birthplace in France. Her genealogical research helped confirm the death of Maier's brother, Karl, to Cook County, which aided a ruling on the photographer's estate.
Bannos' biggest undertaking was the two years she studied over 20,000 of Maier's prints and negatives, learning how the photographer worked through analyzing the sequence of shots and technical aspects of her work. Through that, she was able to negate Maloof's assertion that Maier jumped from a private box camera to a more sophisticated Rolliflex.
"The greatest myth is that she was a nanny with a hobby of photography," Bannos explained. "What I've tried to do is flip that and portray her as a serious photographer whose occupation as being a nanny gave her the freedom to not have to worry about where she was living and where her next meal was coming from, and still had the independence to go out and be the photographer that I think she saw herself as."
Bannos sees Maier as similar to other woman photographers of her time period. She discovered that Maier had, in the 1950s, assembled a portfolio of work that she might have used to apply for jobs in New York.
"She's 25 years old when she's doing that," Bannos explained. "People are like, why didn't she share her photographs? And the people who are saying that knew her when she was 60 or 70 years old, knew a different person than the hopeful 25-year-old in New York who might have been putting a portfolio together for whatever reason."
A third of Maier's known work was not developed, which Bannos suspects occurred because the photographer became more transient in later years. Yet Maier kept taking pictures, often just of movies she was watching in theaters and her important documents. Bannos likens Maier to a prototype of today's smartphone photographer.
"She would just have 12,000 pictures on her Instagram, but I don't know that she would have shared them," Bannos said. "It was the action of photographing that I think she was the most taken with."
Bannos finds the development of work that Maier herself did not see invasive, and she finds it equally irresponsible to speculate questions of Maier's personality or sexuality. She's most comfortable stating facts about Maier, who wore men's clothing and could be considered a hoarder.
"The appropriation of the way we want to see her if we want her to be one of us becomes more about us than about her," said Bannos, a longtime member of the LGBTQ community. "Wishful thinking that she's like us because we hold her up, and if we don't, we don't want her to be like us. I think it's fascinating how people talk about her and what they do embrace about her in this way."
She views Maier's secretiveness as an outcropping of both her family situationMaier was an illegitimate child and her brother was mentally illand her employment.
"The secrets she might have wanted to keep have to do with the shame that's associated with those things, and ultimately I just don't think she wanted anybody to know her business," Bannos said. "They're in power, they're her employers. She did what she could to maintain her own autonomy within their homes."
Overall, Bannos sees the handling of Maier's legacy as rife with ethical dilemmas, but unlike the men who between them own Maier's lifework, she's taking a different approach.
"I don't have that kind of vested stake in her legacy that I'm going to make more money because I'm going to call her a certain thing," Bannos said. "I just wanted to have her put back in her story."
Vivian Maier, A Photographer's Life and Afterlife, by Pamela Bannos, Hardcover, University of Chicago. See vivianmaierproject.com/ .
Pamela Bannos is an artist and researcher who utilizes methods that highlight the forgotten and overlooked, exploring the links between visual representation, urban space, history, and collective memory. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally, including in solo exhibitions at the Photographers' Gallery in London, England, and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York. Her research projects include an investigation of Chicago's Lincoln Park and the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Bannos has taught photography in Northwestern University's Department of Art Theory and Practice since 1993.