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Uncovering the life of Vivian Maier

By Victoria Aronson

Section: Arts

October 18, 2013

Pouring through thousands of film reels and prints, Northwestern lecturer Pamela Bannos delivered her presentation “Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive: A Woman’s Story” to the Women’s Studies Research Center this past Wednesday. Bannos has dedicated herself to piecing together the mystery behind the identity of Vivian Maier, a street photographer and nanny who lived in poverty, only rising to acclaimed fame as an artist following her death.

Pamela Bannos, a distinguished lecturer from Northwestern University, appeared in the BBC documentary film “Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?” granting her insight from intensive research.

Bannos received access to over 20,000 of the artist’s images, stemming from the impressive collections of John Maloof among others. This rare insight has allowed Bannos to explore the life of Maier, who she explains was a 3rd generation member of the servant class, pursuing her passions for photography on the streets.

“I never rely on secondary sources,” Bannos said.

Working as a nanny in New York during the time period during and after the depression, Maier served in wealthy households. Bannos points to the irony behind this lifestyle, stating “she was somebody who never had a home of her own.” Painstakingly tracing Maier’s genealogy during her intensive research of the artist, Bannos explains “she lived the legacy of the women in her family.”

Bannos traces the cameras Maier employed pursuing her passion as a photographer, stemming from a basic, modest box camera to the Rolleiflex. Drawing attention to a photograph of Maier using the Rolleiflex months before it was released, Bannos questions how the nanny came to acquire the camera, one of the countless mysteries surrounding the artist. This transition ecompasses what Bannos describes as a steep learning curve in Maier’s photographic abilities, when originally “her intentions were at the mercy of this machine” while using the basic camera.

Tragically, Maier passed before her work reached acclaim, her negatives and photographs dispersed at auction. John Maloof purchased a substantial portion of her work at auction, creating a collection that has risen in value dramatically with Maier’s sudden rise to fame as an artist.

According to Bannos, the selection of Maier’s prints for the purposes of selling books, prints and other materials only allows for “getting to know her through someone’s else’s eyes.”

Sifting through thousands of negatives never before released to the general public, Bannos came across some particularly curious reels of photographs. She claims at times Maier used her cameras like a copy machine, photographing her passport application, medical prescriptions and bank books. At the time of her work, there were essentially no photo galleries to be found in New York, according to Bannos. The Museum of Fine Arts had only begun showing photographs of student work in basement galleries in the late 1940s, while Maier continued her street photography.

Commenting on the striking similarity between the work of Maier and other artists, such as Lisette Model, Bannos displayed side by side photographs taken by the two women. The difference between the styles and frame choices were practically indiscernible. Although these similarities have spurred backlash from critics, Bannos exclaims, “Why do we have to pigeonhole her work?”

Stressing the emerging image of the mysterious Vivian Maier, both as an artist and as a woman working as a member of the servant class, Bannos explains “we can learn about her progress by studying her photographs.” Continuing her fascination with the life and work of Vivian Maier, Bannos plans on presenting with BBC film director Jill Nicholls at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, England this November.

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