Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Book Review: Vivian Maier – A Photographer's Life and Afterlife, by Pamela Bannos

Giving Vivian Maier A Voice

Vivian Maier – A Photographer's Life and Afterlife, by Pamela Bannos. 2017, The University of Chicago Press, 362 pp. $35.00, hardcover.

For the past eight years or so, many of us have been fascinated with the story and found photographs of Vivian Maier. Part of the fascination has been the stories about Maier – a secretive nanny with an odd French accent; her Rolleiflex around her neck, seemingly everywhere; her trove of images that had never been seen by the public; and her photographic travels in Chicago and New York. The other part of this has been the images themselves. No one can deny that that she made some fantastic photographs that certainly are as good as any other photographer that was known for street photography at that time. Her output was prolific, and of course, since we only know of her after her death, we will never know exactly why she chose to not share her work. Until this latest book by Pamela Bannos, the Vivian Maier story was being told and promoted by those that had much to benefit from the massive find of a lifetime. I don't fault John Maloof for promoting his version of Vivian Maier's story, nor the authors of other books, which I will list at the end. One thing all of them have in common, is that they tell an incomplete story, and the narratives are largely devoid of in-depth research -- partly because of the fact that it was in the self-interest of the owners of Maier's photographs to publish and promote her images. In the rush to capitalize on the popularity of the Vivian Maier story and the photographs, Maloof and others determined the narrative, sometimes obscuring or ignoring information that would have provided us with a more complex version of Vivian Maier. She had to be more than a nanny, and she was not a photography savant.  Don't get me wrong, I love seeing her images in print -- but until Bannos' book, we did not have the sort of arduous and exhaustive scholarly work that was needed to more fully inform us about the actual photographer.

My first inclination to think we were not getting the full story, was when it was reported that she was using a box camera and then went suddenly to a Rolleiflex TLR. Those 6x9 cm images were not of box-camera quality, and were quite possibly done with a 120 roll-film folding camera, which would have allowed for a variety of exposure settings and focusing. That “box-camera” narrative was carried on throughout the Maloof version of events. Pamela Bannos (a professor of photography at Northwestern University) also realized that this was incongruent with what she was seeing, and her meticulous research on Vivian Maier's life and ancestry has provided us with a fascinating read that has the parallel juxtaposition in the text of the arcs of her life and of her “afterlife” – the scattering of her belongings and how they came to our view. She also addresses the issues of copyright and ethics of the factions involved with her estate.

Vivian Maier was far more than a nanny - she was a world-wise traveler, a keen observer, a daring and self-confident photographer, and yet, she chose not to exhibit her wonderful photographs. Bannos' research provides us with a more complete account of Maier's life, and in a way, gives her a voice that was not present in the previous attempts by other authors. In this book, we actually see a timeline of Vivian's whereabouts, and on how she photographed a scene – not with one shot, but with an obvious planned approach with an image sequence that gives us an idea of how she worked. Yes, Vivian Maier was an unconventional person. Had she been famous in life, she would be shoulder to shoulder with all of the other “unconventional” women of her time. There is no doubt of her photographic artistry. We are left with a legacy of work that others have promoted, curated, printed, and sold without Vivian's oversight or background stories. I think Pamela Bannos has given balance to the Vivian Maier phenomenon, and her book is a must-read if you are at all interested in the Vivian Maier story.

Other books on Vivian Maier (in chronological order):
Maloof, John. 2011. Vivian Maier, Street Photographer. Power House Books, Brooklyn, NY.
Cahan, Richard and Michael Williams. 2012. Vivian Maier. Out of the Shadows. CityFiles Press, Chicago, IL.
Maloof, John. 2013. Vivian Maier: Self-Portrait. PowerHouse Books, Brooklyn, NY.
Cahan, Richard and Michael Williams. 2014. Eye to Eye. Photographs by Vivian Maier. CityFiles Press, Chicago, IL.
Maloof, John. 2014. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found. Harper Design, New York.

(Generally, the images from the Maloof collection are in his books, and the Jeffery Goldstein Collection is featured in books by Cahan and Williams.  )

1 comment:

Rick Scheibner said...

Thanks for the review, Mark. Like many others, my exposure to this artist has been to see her images and get a few of the back stories about her that are floating around on the internet. I think there's even a Netflix show about her that we saw a couple of years ago. It's not difficult to imagine how or why her story might have been maligned along the way. I think I just might pick this one up.