A Look at Pamela Bannos’ Biography of Vivian Maier by Arma Malik

Pamela Bannos’ text Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife, is an enriching case study for a myriad of reasons. The discussion in this biography engages with our goal “to understand how images work to create and sustain publics” (ENGL5114 syllabus, 2018).  A woman unknown by the public becomes the subject of public debate and admiration. Stories crafted about her contain both social and cultural value.  Before the discovery (and hijack) of her work by individuals such as Maloof, her work was unknown by the public, seemingly privy to only Vivian herself.  A month was all it took to change (or begin to change) the fate of the mythic boxes containing thousands of images, developed and undeveloped. “Vivian Maier” also became a household name for the men who were able to take the personal belongings of a woman oblivious about the act, and make not only a living but—as the text suggests—a financial legacy for themselves. If it weren’t for her images-trodden suitcase, which already spoke to the cultural narrative of the ‘kodak girl’ and the romanticizing of travel, her images might not have been discovered to begin.

Banos’ text makes a consistent point to outline and describe the photographic endevours of Maier.  She outlines not only Maier’s locations and the context of the moments in which she clicked, but also the way in which the images speak to the various themes she was inclined to. From film and stars, to babies and grandmothers living mundane lives, to social unrest, she was interested in it all. This book follows the life of a woman belonging to an immigrant family, and in this regard fits into the genre of immigrant narrative. However, it does not follow the conventional model of immigrant narratives, especially in relation to women. Instead of focusing on domesticity or social bonding in the conventional sense, the book chooses to focus more on her passion for photography, and how her life revolved around it. As the book mentions at one point, her story is one of an independent female woman. In addition, the text makes interesting mention of the way photography was marketed to women during the time in which it became a more accessible medium.

The role the term ‘nanny’ plays in the narrative surrounding is especially frustrating for me. Somehow her being a nanny adds ‘shock-value’ to her being a photographer. Why not allow her to be spoken of as just a photographer? Many artists take on other jobs to make a living while supporting their art or other endeavours. I am doubtful that the same tactic would be as readily employed when talking of a male photographer. This also brings me to question how the narrative of a female photographer may be constructed differently than it would be for a male photographer. Somehow the whole ‘mystery’ element to the narrative seems to add to the mystique of her being a woman. It’s also interesting to note that the only collector who did not publicize or profit of Maier’s work, despite spending more money on acquiring it in comparison to her contemporaries, was a woman.

As for the propagation of Maier’s images, and the way in which they gripped the public imagination, there seems no doubt that she had talent, and her images spoke to people. However, points in the text also suggest that it was elements besides her images, such as the mystery shrouding her, the narrative of how the images were discovered, and the tensions between the various acquirers of her work that popularized her images (and her person) further. The text also brings to question who should profit from art that is no longer in the possession of its maker, and how much credence should we give to the words of those popularizing the art but not working the artist.

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DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

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