Books of The Times: Vivian Maier, Through a Clearer Lens

But stories — like snapshots — are shaped by people, and for particular purposes. There’s always an angle. A new biography, “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife,” by Pamela Bannos, strives to rescue Maier all over again, this time from the men who promulgated the Maier myth and profited off her work; chiefly Maloof, who controlled her copyright for a time. After a legal battle — “the Vivian Mire,” one critic called it — her estate passed into a trust last year, where it will be held for possible heirs and eventually released into the public domain.

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Maier often created self-portraits in mirrors. Credit Image from the Ron Slattery negative collection. Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier © 2017 The Estate of Vivian Maier. All rights reserved.

The book braids together three strands: a brisk, rather generic history of American photography; a biography of Maier; and a withering account of how the artist has been represented since her death. “My goal was always to recognize and give Maier agency within her own story,” Bannos writes. She tries to dislodge the portrayal of Maier as a mysterious, freakish figure, and to see a person where others have seen mostly pathology: her hoarding and possible paranoia.

Bannos makes the case that Maier lived a much larger, more varied life than assumed. This famous recluse once took a five-month trip around the world as well as a subarctic train expedition, both times traveling with just her camera for company. As for her notorious secrecy, it served a purpose, at least in the beginning. Her parents were frantic dissemblers who struggled to conceal scandals of illegitimacy, abandonment and institutionalization. Of course Maier was wary about sharing her personal details, Bannos reasons: Who would hire a nanny with such a sordid family life?

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Pamela Bannos Credit Manuela Hung

Nor should we be so struck that Maier never wanted to show her work to anyone. Sharing comes easily, too easily, to us. Not so for Maier, who told a friend that “if she had not kept her images secret, people would have stolen or misused them” — how prophetic that now seems. And her compulsive photographing prefigured our own relationship with our phones, Bannos says, our own desire to constantly document our lives.

In this way, almost point by point, Bannos refutes how Maier has been marketed. And she looks at how it has benefited Maloof et al. to present Maier as a strange, incapable wraith, how it made them look all the more heroic, and allowed them to cavalierly overlook her absolute unwillingness to to show her work publicly.

In a strange coincidence, Bannos reports, 21 years after Maier lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she cared for the dark-haired girl who often appears in her photos, Susan Sontag would move into the penthouse of the very same building and begin the essays in “On Photography.” “Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,” Sontag wrote in the opening pages of that book. “They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads.”

Biographies and documentaries can tempt us the same way. They can offer the fantasy of absolute knowledge, absolute possession (perhaps this is how Maloof went astray). The achievement of Bannos’s intelligent, irritable self-reflexive study is in its restraint. She unseats the ghost and restores to us the woman — but in her own words and images, and without psychologizing. It’s a portrait as direct as any of Maier’s, and what a distinct pleasure it is to meet her gaze again.

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