An Interview with Pamela Bannos


When I wanted someone to clear up some of the questions I had about Vivian Maier’s archive and the trouble I was having in piercing through this dreamy storyline of the nanny/secret photographer, sad spinster rescued by her male archivists that had been constructed, I asked Pamela Bannos. A photographer and a writer and a professor, Bannos is working on her own take on the Vivian Maier story, one that was not designed specifically to sell Maier’s work at high prices.

Because while we can appreciate her work, and marvel at the story of a photographer who was hiding the brilliant art she was making in an age of self-promotion twitter feeds and “platform,” it is discomforting when an artist becomes mythologized, and when that myth is baldly used to move product. Particularly when we are dealing with a female artist mythologized by men and using patronizing ideas of womanhood to do it.

Pamela Bannos is working on her own book about Vivian Maier, while also teaching at Northwestern and producing and showing her own photographic work. We spoke over email about Bannos’s attempts to gain access to the full Maier archive, the rescue narrative put forth by the dealers of Maier’s work, and why all of the emphasis on Maier’s spinster nanny life. For more about Vivian Maier and her complicated legacy, see our “Disappearance” issue.

I was wondering if you could brief us about who owns what and who profits from what.

According to John Maloof, he owns more than 100,000 negatives; 20-30,000 color slides; many reels of motion picture footage; audio tapes; and more than 3,000 vintage prints. Jeffrey Goldstein owns around 18-20,000 negatives and slides, around 1,000 vintage prints, and multiple reels of motion picture footage. Ron Slattery owns several thousand vintage prints and an undisclosed amount of negatives and slides. John Maloof also sold around 200 Vivian Maier negatives on eBay before he understood that what he had was special; those are in the hands of individuals in several countries and a dozen states. All of this is what I call “Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive.”

All three of the major collectors have sold Maier’s vintage prints, which currently retail for upwards of several thousand dollars. Howard Greenberg Gallery, who sells Maloof’s collection, has a 5×7” print listed at $12,000.

Maloof and Goldstein both sell posthumous prints from Maier’s negatives — and they both put their own signatures on the backs of these prints. The 12”x12” prints, originally ranging from $1,800-3,000 in an edition of fifteen, currently start at $2,200 and sell out at more than $4,000 each.

I don’t imagine that it would be easy to donate a bulk of work like this to a major institution; I’m not aware of any museums that make prints from negatives for display, they typically show vintage prints or contemporary reproductions under the guidance of the artist. Also, I haven’t heard of any institution critically weighing in on it.

The people who acquired Maier’s work were all in the business of selling; they are all acknowledged flea market pickers who have engaged in resale. This explains to me why the work has been handled the way that it has. Jeffrey Goldstein, who acquired his trove after the work gained worldwide attention, has stated that he paid a total of $90,000 in four separate acquisitions. He then acquired the URL

When you say that the way the archive has been treated can be attributed in part to the fact that the men who own the prints and negatives are flea market pickers, what do you mean by that? And what would be the ideal home, in your view, for the archive?

I mean they acquired the work with the intention of selling it. Resellers also attend the sort of auction where Maier’s divided storage locker contents were sold.

I feel conflicted about Maier’s archive in general. This was a very private woman who chose not to share her personal life or her photography. That apparently is what has made her into a “mystery woman.” The selective editing of her work has perpetuated her mystery. After viewing more than 20,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, a different photographer emerged for me than the one first presented by John Maloof. I feel intensely uncomfortable with the way that he has presented her personal belongings alongside her photographic history — putting her shoes on display, and laying out her blouses in his movie, for example. I think he’s done a good job of transforming her into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows that model. I don’t know how any of that would fit into a traditional concept of an archive. From a photographic standpoint, I think that since Maloof stated that his intention was to get her work in museums, the photographic legacy should be open to study. In terms of an ideal home for the archive, in this unusual case of its scattered state, I would advocate for a digital aggregate of the negatives and vintage prints. I would argue that the two-dozen or so individuals who own her negatives should keep them, but with the images contained in one digital archive.

There’s this idea that Maier was plucked from obscurity, but she seemed to have opportunities to show and sell her work during her life and she chose not to, isn’t that correct? It was more like, she didn’t want to for her own reasons. That seems to me to set up this rescue white-knight narrative with the men who bought her negatives and that makes me uncomfortable. Is there a better way to talk about these so-called lost artists who aren’t discovered until after their deaths?

I believe that before Maier came to Chicago in 1956 she had intentions of showing her work and I think that she did get paid for some early work. Her vintage prints are overwhelmingly from her New York years. I agree that she then chose not to show or share her work from the time that she arrived in Chicago and for the rest of her life. And I agree that there is an uncomfortable hero aspect to the story of her work’s resurrection. For me, this rescuer narrative is furthered by arguments that state how lucky we are that the work was not lost or destroyed, therefore denying us of witnessing her brilliance. One writer suggested that if Maier didn’t want the work to be available for our viewing, she wouldn’t have saved it all; and she was saving it for us.

You didn’t see this same storyline of “rescue” with the work of someone like, say, Henry Darger. His posthumous attention also wasn’t filtered through the person who advocated for the work. And if Maier herself was the person choosing not to show her work, how would that complicate the storyline that is put forth in the documentary about her?

I think that you’re right in implying that John Maloof has presented himself alongside Vivian Maier throughout her emergence. He has chosen which of her work to share, and he is positioned as her savior. And in further mingling and switching the focus, I don’t think the movie is a documentary about Vivian Maier at all — it is a film about John Maloof and his quest to “find” Maier. He states early on that his interest is in getting her work into museums, and then spends the bulk of the film exploring her quirky and then troublesome personality. A more fair account of Maier and her photography — and an actual documentary film about her — is Jill Nicholls’s movie made for the BBC television series, Imagine (Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?) It presents other collectors than Maloof (who refused to participate) and also gives voice to people who interacted with Maier in the photo world. But you’re right about the conflict of fairness in presenting the work and story of someone who deliberately chose not to share them.

Also, is it the story of Maier or the work that people are responding to? They seem to be so tied in together. One doesn’t really encounter her work without encountering her story. Would the work hold as much appeal if it was not attached to this idea of the poor genius woman who died in obscurity?

Her work was first shared outside the context of her biography, but the unknown artist aspect was always attached to the images and I think that generated curiosity in the work. I do think that the first shared images held up on their own; the people who convinced Maloof to stop selling her negatives on eBay did not know her story, but they did know that there was a huge body of work. Incidentally, she was still living during this period of activity. The “reclusive nanny photographer” narrative then brought a different kind of attention to the work. I think the insatiable interest in seeing more unpublished work derives from the cultivated mystery of her story.

I’ve been writing a lot about spinsters lately, and I think the Maier story we’ve been told lines up with what we prefer to believe about unmarried women, that they were in some way helpless, that they needed this male figure to bring them into the world, and because she didn’t find one in life she needs one in death to control her work. We’re almost disappointed to learn they maybe preferred their lives this way, maybe they considered their lives to be full. I’m thinking about some things I’ve read about the idea of Emily Dickinson versus the real life of Dickinson. Does that enter into how we’ve chosen to discuss Maier the person?

Yes, I think that some people think Maier had a tragic life because she never married and had a family of her own. But she was not unusual within her own family circle, nor was she unique in her avocation. I have spoken of Maier’s as a woman’s story, and how she lived the legacy of the women before her: her mother was a live-in maid, and her grandmother was a live-in cook. Both left the fathers of their children and lived with others’ families. I believe that Maier’s avocation allowed her to pursue her interest in photography; or, as opposed to the nanny who was also a photographer, I consider her a photographer who also happened to be a nanny.

What is your own personal interest in this case? What made you first decide to pursue this as a subject of research?

I am an artist who is interested in how changing stories obscure history. I’ve done several web-based and site-specific projects about this, most notably, one called “Hidden Truths”. I am also a photographer that has been teaching for more than twenty years. I became involved with the Vivian Maier story in 2012 when Chicago’s public television station called my university looking for an “expert” to respond to the question of whether Vivian Maier’s work was derivative of other photographers’. I set out to answer the question by studying hundreds of photographs that were available online. I studied Maier’s shooting strategies and locations, placing her at the entrance to New York’s Museum of Modern Art while the 1952 exhibition “Five French Photographers” hung inside. I speculated that she had seen the exhibition and that it may have influenced her. After the TV program aired, Jeffrey Goldstein and Ron Slattery gave me full access to their collections. I immediately understood that the split-up archive had led to a misunderstanding of her work and motivations. John Maloof has dubbed all of his online Maier presences as “official,” leading to an illusion of definitive authority. But he is wrong about some fundamental things and other specific details because he hasn’t seen the other collections. There is a lot still missing in Maier’s story that continues to unfold.

In addition to the forensic study of Vivian Maier’s photographs, I have been chronicling the posthumous phenomenon of her discovery and recognition, which is largely traceable online. Shifting stories, inaccurate reporting, and genuine misunderstanding have led to a distortion of the timeline that reveals this process. My research is culminating in a book-length study of Maier’s life as a third generation live-in servant who saw herself first and foremost as a photographer. It is also unraveling the posthumous story, which deserves a thorough understanding to accurately honor Vivian Maier’s life and legacy.

Is the archive blocking or at least discouraging academic or other viewpoints about Maier’s work and life from coming out? You said they’ve refused to cooperate with your own work on Maier, do you have any sense on why that might be?

Last year I visited the Lisette Model fonds at the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa. The collection presents a coherent and cohesive archive of Model’s life and work and reveals a multi-faceted individual. The selective sharing of the multiple parts of Maier’s archive has encouraged the concept of “the Vivian Maier mystery.” Yes, it is blocking and discouraging other viewpoints of the woman and her work than those that have been perpetuated by the holders of her legacy. After my viewing of the entire Jeffrey Goldstein collection, I disagreed with assertions made about the woman and her work coming from both major collectors’ camps. Goldstein has now collaborated twice on books with Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. I’ve publicly disputed facts and interpretations of her work as presented in their first book. I’m also intent on untangling the twisted facts of Maier’s posthumous emergence; that’s apparently gotten in the way of my access to Maloof’s collection. As conflicted as I am over my own interest in learning more about this private woman who has become so public, I feel that her life and legacy deserve an accurate portrayal.

Pamela Bannos utilizes methods of research that highlight the forgotten and overlooked, exploring the links between visual representation, urban space, history and collective memory. An exhibiting artist since the 1980s, Bannos has shown her photographic works nationally and internationally, including in solo exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, England (1992), and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York (2003). Her art practice has branched out from photographic works that incorporate found imagery to also include research projects that culminate in site-specific and/or web-based presentations. PamelaBannos has taught photography at Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice since 1993. She has a BA in Psychology & Sociology from Drake University, and an MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Image by Henry Darger, another Chicago artist who was not celebrated until after death