Maier mania leads to lecture, photo contest and walk

A woman presents slides at a podium.

Northwestern photography professor Pamela Bannos lectures about her book “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife.” Photo by Mia Zanzucchi

Before coming to Northwestern, few cherubs knew of street photographer Vivian Maier. After hearing from the author of a book about her, several became full-fledged Maier enthusiasts.

“Her photos are an observation of the world,” said Mira Dwyer of Potomac, Maryland. “She picks out the unique details and characters around her.”

This year marked the first time Northwestern University art professor Pamela Bannos spoke to cherubs about her book, “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife.” It dispels the myth that Maier, who died in 2009, was merely a secretive nanny, instead telling the story of a woman who was a highly accomplished photographer first and nanny second.

Bannos completed five years of research about Maier’s life before writing. Traveling to New York and France so she could walk in Maier’s footsteps, Bannos employed the same reporting techniques taught at cherubs.

“I learned the skills you gain reporting are just as valuable when writing a longer piece,” said Madeline Rosenberg of Chappaqua, New York. “It’s the same process.”

After the lecture, cherubs lined up to get Bannos’ signature in their books. Dwyer got a book signed for her high school photography teacher, who had students recreate a Maier photo for an assignment earlier in the year.

“When I heard we were doing a Vivian Maier assignment here, I was excited because I had a connection,” she said. “My teacher will be excited at the gesture.”

Interest in Maier didn’t stop with the lecture. Cherubs re-created Maier’s photos during Snap Off, the Sunday morning photo club.

A photo of buildings in a city.

Snap Off week two photo by Eileen Chen

Dylan Carlson-Sirvent of Upper Arlington, Ohio, mimicked Maier’s use of reflections by taking pictures at Lake Michigan. The experience inspired him to transfer Maier’s photography skills to his reporting.

“When you see her photos, you can tell subjects trusted her,” Carlson-Sirvent said. “That’s something I want to aspire to, not necessarily in photography, but in journalism when I’m interviewing and want it to be more casual and conversational.”

At 8 on a Sunday morning, 12 cherubs walked for about 45 minutes with program director Roger Boye to visit the park bench Maier often sat on during her last years along the lakefront in Chicago’s Rogers Park. They interviewed Patrick Kennedy — the man who often sat with Maier on the bench — who told cherubs Maier had always been very secretive. Spencer Allan of Dallas, Texas, sat on the bench wondering whether Maier would have wanted her work to be sold.

“You can read the book, you can go to the talk, but to see it play out in real life was the highlight of Vivian Maier,” Allan said. “After all the time that was invested into watching her story play out, what was I going to do, sleep in?”

As Professor Bannos discusses in her book, Maier achieved international fame only after her death as some of her photographs made the rounds on the internet. In recent years, individual Maier prints have sold for thousands of dollars.