In 2012 Northwestern University photography professor Pamela Bannos got a call from WTTW that sent her down a research rabbit hole from which she’s just emerged, new book in hand.
WTTW’s Jay Shefsky was looking for an expert to appear on a program about a recently discovered photography phenomenon, and Bannos agreed to take a look. The long-term result, published this month by University of Chicago Press, is Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife.
Let’s note right off that there’s no single new stop-the-presses revelation in this thoroughly researched account of Maier’s life and posthumous career. But if you approach it—as I did—thinking you already know the whole story, you’re in for a surprise. In alternating sections, Bannos has interwoven a rigorous biography with a discussion of the photographs Maier was always taking, the tale of how her work (and life) came to be acquired and marketed by others, and the history of photography, including the enormous impact of photojournalism in the mid-20th century. All this context is illuminating.
Along the way, Bannos corrects errors that were introduced in the construction of the Vivian Maier myth—some by Maier herself, but others by those who shaped her story after her death. The most significant correction is Bannos’s emphatic conclusion that Maier wasn’t—as she’s been widely perceived—a nanny with a photography hobby, but was, less mysteriously, the reverse: a serious photographer who supported herself by working as a nanny.
That’s a major conceptual reversal, and Bannos told me in a brief interview last week that it was her impetus for writing the book. “I wanted to give her agency back,” she said. For years now, Bannos added, all we’ve heard about Maier, and all we’ve seen of her photographs is, “what the men who had her work were selecting.”
Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife takes the reader right up to the continuing legal battle over Maier’s copyright. In 2014, when a purported new heir turned up, Cook County stepped in and took control of Maier’s estate. The county reached an agreement last year with Chicago-based major collector John Maloof (the guy everybody knows from the the Oscar-nominated Finding Vivian Maier documentary), but has a pending federal lawsuit against her other major collector (also a longtime Chicagoan), Jeffrey Goldstein—in spite of the fact that most of his collection is now apparently owned by Swiss investors.
A couple of quibbles: In a perfect world, this book, which includes a rather skimpy selection of photos, would contain more of the Maier images Bannos discusses. (As it is, no doubt because of access and copyright issues, what it has is extensive footnotes directing the reader to various Maier archives.) And it would have been able to shed more light on the most vexing part of the Vivian Maier story—the part where collectors bought her extraordinary work at an auction a year and a half before she died (mostly alone and impoverished), but only found her after her obituary was published.
Of course, in a perfect world, that wouldn’t have happened.