Artist Pamela Bannos has been teaching photography in Northwestern University’s art department for thirty years.
When a local news station called the university in search of a comment on the work of photographer Vivian Maier, whose posthumous debut exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center created a sensation, Bannos was tapped as an expert. She took a deep dive into Maier’s life that lasted five years, resulting in the book “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife” (University of Chicago Press, 2017). The biography expands the captivating, yet reductive premise of Maier as the North Shore nanny who went out with her camera during her free time, to Maier as a serious photographer.
Most recently, Bannos produced a ten-episode podcast “My Dear Alice,” based on letters sent to the Victorian photographer Alice Austen (1866–1952). The production was supported by the Alice Austen House on Staten Island. Austen photographed life on Staten Island and lower Manhattan for decades, carrying heavy camera equipment around on her bicycle. The waterfront house she grew up in, called Clear Comfort, had been in the family since 1844 and her life was a comfortable one.
By 1945, with all the family money long gone, an elderly Austen was forced to leave Clear Comfort. She sold all her possessions and moved into a poorhouse. The local historical society gathered as much photographic material as possible, mostly glass-plate negatives, during the chaotic and hasty sale of the house.
“There are interesting parallels between her and Vivian Maier,” says Bannos of her two subjects. Both photographers left behind scattered treasure troves, competing collectors, and fascinating life stories with scholars vying to claim their identities. Also, says Bannos, “they were both hoarders.” For historians, this is gold.
The music on the podcast, composed by Nicolas Rosa-Palermo, for example, was informed by the music Bannos saw listed on Alice Austen’s dance cards. “My favorite were his two versions of the Santiago Waltz,” she says.
Alice lived with Gertrude Tate for the last thirty years of her life. Neither family supported the relationship. “The story of Alice Austen is a fascinating look at queer history,” says Bannos.
For Bannos, research has been part of her artistic process, and archives have often provided the source material for her work. In past projects she combined her own work with interpretations of found images. One project from 2008, “Hidden Truths: The Chicago City Cemetery and Lincoln Park,” included installing six historical markers that outline the transformation of that landscape over time. “I have not made a photograph in ten years,” says Bannos. “My practice has veered. I still teach photography and I am deeply immersed in it, but I am doing it in different ways.”
After Alice was evicted from Clear Comfort, a family moved in and lived there for twenty years. In 1975, Clear Comfort was purchased by the city of New York. The house had fallen into disrepair, but it was restored and opened as a museum to the public in 1985. Items belonging to Alice were returned to the house by members of the community, including four boxes of letters.
Bannos built “My Dear Alice” around letters that begin in 1883. “I started transcribing the letters during lockdown,” says Bannos. Working with scans, Bannos used her Photoshop skills to enhance some of the more densely packed letters to make them easier to read. As she put the letters in order, a story emerged and the personalities of the correspondents became more distinct. There was Alice’s mother, friends, and a suitor who comes across as so pathetic and needy one can imagine Alice getting annoyed and blowing him off.
“There are also big gaps,” says Bannos, noting that in the boxes of letters were many empty envelopes and pages that were drawn on with crayon (the children of the family who moved in after Alice departed played “post office” with the letters they had found in a closet). “It all comes to a halt in 1898,” says Bannos of the letters.
While Alice’s voice is missing, you can sense her presence. This is due to Bannos’ skill in introducing each episode and providing historical context and biographical information about Alice during this period.
As much as Bannos loves working with archives, she didn’t want to do another book. With Austen, there was just so much information, Bannos didn’t want to get lost in the weeds. So she focused on the letters, which touch on Alice’s world as a young woman who is beginning to take photographs, her friendships, and the beginnings of her relationship with her lifelong companion Gertrude Tate.
For the podcast, Bannos worked with an audio engineer, and cast the voices after auditioning theater students from her school. Bannos selected voices that evoked the personalities she had come to know in the letters but that were also different from each other. She also bought a MIDI keyboard to create sounds that helped her move the story along.
Bannos studied the letters in the Alice Austen House collection, and she also looked at materials in the collection of the Staten Island Historic Society. That same organization also owns all of Austen’s negatives and prints. There are some very early letters in that collection, as well as some during the end of Austen’s time at Clear Comfort that are very sad as she is begging people for money. There are about 700 letters total and Bannos has read them all.
Once the voices were recorded, Bannos began writing the script. Bannos had access to other primary materials. “She kept impeccable scrapbooks,” says Bannos. “I knew I wasn’t going to tell the story about the people who wrote the letters; it is about Alice Austen, but we never hear her voice. It is people talking to her.”
All the women featured, Bannos points out, were unconventional. Only one got married. “What I was struck by when looking at letters and time stamps was what she was doing when she got those letters,” says Bannos. There were lots of parties. “Everything revolved around dancing.”
By the time the first episode of the podcast launched in the fall of 2022, Bannos was getting about four hours of sleep. “I throw myself into these projects,” she says.
While promoting the Maier book in 2018, Bannos was invited to the Alice Austen House to give a talk. She knew she wanted to do something on Austen and after a conversation with the museum’s director, settled on working with the four boxes of letters.
There was a small grant from the museum that allowed Bannos to pay the voice talent. Northwestern had a COVID assistance grant for people whose research and practice had come to a halt, and that helped pay for the audio engineer. Bannos, a Chicago native, had moved out to the western suburbs to take care of her ninety-three year-old mother. “I was teaching classes out of my brother’s old bedroom,” says Bannos.
For Bannos, teaching has been an interesting evolution. “Every year the students all look exactly the same and I look older,” she says. This fact does not bother her. “The passage of time is always what I am interested in,” she says. Despite the dominance of digital photography, Bannos says there is a resurgence of film. “I’ve seen the pendulum swing back,” she says. When the school redid the art building they put in a larger darkroom to meet demand. Bannos’ classes always have a waiting list.
Bannos is embarking on another project concerning a woman photographer (she will reveal the name once she is further along with the work). One thing is certain—it won’t be a book. “Vivian Maier took it out of me.”