Pamela Bannos delivered a fascinating lecture at the Levy Lecture on September 4. The Linden Room was packed to capacity and the crowd was eager to hear her talk, based on the title of her recent book, Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife.
Vivian Maier was, in Bannos’ view, “not a nanny who moonlighted as a photographer; she was a photographer who supported herself as a nanny.” As the presentation unfolded on the screen, Bannos deftly explained and proved how much of what is currently known about Maier is not accurate and continues to be misrepresented, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. This misinformation includes important information such as the dates and locations of certain photographs, the types of cameras she used, as well as her personal history.
Maier was prolific in her work, and pursued her avocation fearlessly. She loved to take photographs from a high vantage point, such as on a rooftop or on a ridge overlooking a valley. At one point in the 1950s she traveled around the world alone, her camera a constant presence as she took photos and documented her journey. She lived and worked in urban centers like New York and Chicago caring for other people’s children to support herself, but in her spare time, she was photographing people, outdoor scenery, and street life, sometimes with a child in tow, other times alone, but always with a camera or two. She explored neighborhoods near and far and kept records of where she was and what she saw.
Bannos pointed out themes in Maier’s work – her interest in self-portraiture, in taking photos of shadows, the street scenes, capturing shots of movie work and celebrities, taking close ups of people she had just met. Maier did not make friends easily, but as a photographer, she had a knack for putting her subjects at ease and taking close ups of their faces.
Bannos explores Maier’s fractured family life, including family secrets, separations, journeys between the United States and France, and a history of mental illness. All of these pieces, assembled together, tell a nuanced story of a very private woman. Eston Gross was at the lecture and knew a bit about Maier, but came away greatly impressed, saying, “For those of us who had seen or read about the photographer, the lecture was an eye-opener, offering many new insights and a new perspective on Vivian Maier as a person and as an artist with a camera. Ms. Bannos’ research, both on Maier’s personal life and family history, was impressive.”
Due to online outlets like eBay, Vivian Maier’s photography has been scattered all over the world, often to parts unknown. We will never be able to document an accurate and complete history of her work, but Bannos’ book attempts to set the record straight where it is possible. In that sense, Bannos’ work is one important step toward redeeming Maier’s personal story.