Was Vivian Maier’s Work About Getting a Life or Recording Life?

Pamela Bannos has written a careful, touching, delicate biography that escorts Maier out of the shadows and into the light without risking overexposure.

Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife
Pamela Bannos
University Of Chicago Press
Oct 2017

The legend of Vivian Maier could not have been more tailor-made for a Hollywood film. Indeed, it’s surprising her story has yet to be told in a fictionalized format. The story was told, however, by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel in their 2013 Academy Award-nominated documentary
Finding Vivian Maier, and that helped cement the myth of Vivian as the “nanny photographer”.

There she was, this lanky woman with her short haircut, wearing a man’s shirt and shoes, that glare of hers both piercing and empty, cautiously exposing her face in one of the many self-portraits she would take while passing mirrors. Her appearance, from the early ’50s onward, when as a 25-year-old woman she seemed to come into her own as a photographer, lent itself more towards an asexual nanny and caregiver than a carefree independent woman. She consumed images, shot over 100,000 negatives (most undeveloped at the time of her 2009 death) and otherwise stayed to herself through a peripatetic lifetime of linking herself with families, caring for their children, and hoarding every significant (and many insignificant) images on film.

Why begin this discussion of Maier with a comment about her appearance? What does that have to do with her status as something more than just a mysterious nanny who left behind a legacy of photographic studies? Pamela Bannos’s
Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife is a richly detailed and surprisingly exciting look at the life and times of this woman whose main goal seemed to be one of completely erasing herself from the picture. For Maier, photography seemed to be about recording facts and documenting observations. The glimpses we see of her in these self-portraits seem almost accidental, almost shameful. It seems as if she’s apologizing for the intrusion. Maier lived as a photographer from approximately 1950, at 24, through the end of her life 59 years later, shuffling time between nearly two dozen employment opportunities (including time living with and working for TV talk show host Phil Donahue’s family.)

Maier died in 2009 as anonymously and alone as she seemed to have lived, but the emergence of her photographs and what has since been done with them comprises at least half of
Vivian Maier. It’s a hard balance to accomplish and Bannos manages it, for the most part. She seems to understand, as a professor of photography in Northwestern University’s department of art theory and practice, that the story of Maier’s life and afterlife probably depends more on the former than the latter. Who is John Maloof? Who is Ron Slattery? Who is Allan Sekula? These are three of the handful of names and wheeler-dealers who came out from under the lifted rocks to assume ownership of and responsibility for Maier’s legacy. The questions about their motivations linger. Did they have a right to the work if no heir surfaced? Would they be guilty of artistic appropriation no matter what they did while presenting her prints through books, documentaries, and gallery exhibitions? Was there any way they could have Vivian’s best interests in mind, or were they simply looking to make as much money as quickly as possible?

The inherent difficulty in any book about photography that isn’t primarily a coffee table-sized collection of the photographer’s greatest hits is that the writer needs to vividly and carefully describe the photos, impose motivations on them, and depend on the reader to either search them out on their own or have previous knowledge of the style and technique.
Vivian Maier is a dual biography of a woman who seemed to go to the greatest lengths possible to stay off the grid, and it’s a story of the photos. There’s Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint in a car en route to the premiere of their film North By Northwest. There’s the image of a couple embraced, horizontally, on a public beach. Inside, there are images that bring to mind the great New York street photographer Weegee, the humanism of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, and people sleeping in alleyways, on stairs, unaware of Maier’s presence.

Maier was drawn to taking portraits of elderly women, action shots, carcasses in Chicago stockyards, and migrant families in places as far off as Vancouver, British Columbia. Vivian went where her employer families went. While a viewer might expect the images to reflect a life in service of another, they instead proved to be more challenging, more elusive, not confrontational so much as simply bearing witness to experience. Bannos details the mental illness and elusive nature of Vivian Maier’s family to such an extent that the reader comes to understand there was no other option for our subject but to get out and find something else. Was it about getting a life, or recording a life?

A 1947 New York Times article seemed — in the photography column that had been running for nine years at that time — to set forth the mission Maier followed for the lifetime of photography she would start three years later: “…The best approach is the leisurely one, with no set program to reach anywhere at a particular time.” Bannos goes to great lengths to dismiss the party line, apparently perpetrated by Maloof, that Maier was both a mysterious nanny and a photographic savant. This was the pitch that apparently sold the idea of Maier as a force of importance in American photography. Here was this woman with no past, no connections, and a future dependent on the needs of her employer. The pictures were merely residue of her concealed life — or were they?

It takes time to build this story, and the patient reader should be rewarded. In the last years of her life, leading up to and following her 2009 death, interest develops and eventually explodes regarding the origin of Maier’s photos, their motivation, and the spark that lit their carefully composed genius. Bannos writes of Maier’s “…waist-length periscope viewfinder” and how it made it easier for her to photograph unsuspecting subjects. “Inquistiveness-and even voyeurism — is the basis of on-the-street photography.” This woman, apparently allergic to intimate human contact and resistant to allowing anybody to get close to her, is able to document seemingly everybody she sees. Whether this is a coping mechanism for a failure to build an intimate personal life, or an element of her artistic genius, is a question Bannos allows to be asked without expecting an answer.

More difficulty comes in
Vivian Maier when Pamela Bannos has to make conclusions based on available evidence. There was Vivian, with her Rolleiflex, taking portraits of Bowery residents that look more like the product of an assignment than the random luck of agreeable and photogenic subjects. Bannos seems to tread hesitantly in making these conclusions, but they’re understandable. While she does question John Maloof’s motivations, and whether or not he should have cropped Maier’s photos for modern display, she does give him credit where and when it’s due:

“In the same way that… Eugene Atget needed to be recontextualized to have his importance recognized, Vivian Maier and her work could be resurrected and woven into the history of photography.”

Bannos goes on to conclude, perhaps begrudgingly, that Maloof was the greatest patron Maier could have wished to have in life. What he does with her post-life legacy will always be subject to judgment based on whoever sits on the committee.

The primary story in
Vivian Maier is easy to understand. A young woman finds a life’s purpose at 24 through photography. For over half a century, she wanders from situation to situation, careful not to leave a visible trace of ever having been anywhere, her only dependents a series of storage spaces containing her life’s work. The secondary story, involving Maloof and the others who took it upon themselves to absorb Maier’s work and distill it through their own agendas, is more clearly developed and Bannos pulls no punches:

“Maloof’s voice stood in for Maier’s, making him a kind of surrogate for her… the early descriptions… Maloof helped spread were inaccurate and incomplete, giving rise to ever-changing and increasingly embellished stories that created a myth…”

Bannos continues by noting that Maloof’s selections of Maier’s prints to display in 2010, a year after the woman’s death, evoked comparisons to Lisette Model and Diane Arbus. Was it too much? Was it academically legitimate? Maier’s post-life popularity becomes embroiled in big money and literal hired guns, which makes the reader hope that one day it becomes dramatized. Bannos notes that Maloof made no pretense of having any understanding of photography when he bought Maier’s negatives, which brings to mind the idea that whoever owns the balls gets to dictate the rules and timing of the game.

“I have to tell you that I come with my life, and my life is in boxes,” Maier tells one of her final employers, and the reader comes to understand the importance of accumulations and assessing a life’s work as something tangible, something visible. The legal legacy of Maier’s work was settled in 2017. The tangled route those negatives followed ended up with some Swiss Investors, and her estate sued Jeffrey Goldstein (who sold them to Stephen Bulger before they were acquired by the Swiss Investors.) Bannos notes, quite logically, that Maier’s story is still happening.

There’s a sadness cloud that lingers over
Vivian Maier and it’s hard to shake off once finished. Bannos has written a careful, touching, delicate biography that escorts Maier out of the shadows and into the light without risking overexposure. It’s the work that matters, in the end, and Maier’s collection should continue to challenge, intrigue, and register as an important testament to understanding the omnipresent thin line in photography between observation and intrusion.

RATING 8 / 10