An important oeuvre in the history of US American photography is currently being rediscovered. After being shown for the first time in Europe at the Forum für Fotografie in Cologne, the work of the photographer Mary Frey is now displayed at the Centre national de laudiovisuel
in Dudelange. It carries us away to a small town in the west of Massachusetts, to the America of the 1970s and 80s. Even at first glance we can see how the pictures reflect Freys artistic debate with the trailblazers of American photography.
In 1991, Peter Galassi curated an exhibition entitled "Pleasures and terrors of domestic comfort" at MoMA in New York. Today, the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition reads like a compendium of the New American Photography. All the photographers who took part are leading names of very high artistic standing. Philip-Lorca diCorcia, William Eggleston, Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Tina Barney, Joel Sternfeld, Nicholas Nixon, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Larry Sultan, Robert Adams, Larry Fink, Sally Man and
As a university teacher, Mary Frey inspired several generations of students between 1979 and 2015 at the Hartford Art School. While she did take part in several individual and group exhibitions in the USA after the exhibition at MoMA, following the birth of her child she cut down her public presence on the art market in favour of her family and her teaching work.
Only when she stopped teaching three years ago did she become interested again in putting her work up for public debate. At a workshop run by the Hartford Art School Connecticut in Berlin, she met the publisher Hannes Wanderer, of Peperoni Books. It was thanks to Hannes Wanderer that the Forum für Fotografie in Cologne and the CNA made contact with Mary Freys work. In 2017, Peperoni Books brought out Reading Raymond Carver, using Mary Frey's black-and-white photographs from the years 1979 to 1983, which had first appeared under the working title Domestic Rituals. The book was a success; soon after its publication, it was nominated in 2017, as one of the shortlisted titles for the "Best First Photobook" award presented by Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation, and a second edition soon followed. In September 2018, Peperoni Books published Mary Frey's second book, Real Life Dramas.
Frey's artistic purpose is to question the process by which photographic documentary records are produced. The apparently spontaneous scenes that she depicts are, in fact, the carefully staged product of a deliberately conceptual approach. Mary Frey said herself that her intention is to "question the nature of photographic truth while using the iconography of middle-class customs to comment on societal values and systems".
In both of these groups of works Mary Frey takes a conceptual approach to the family portrait, presenting members of her own family and also friends and acquaintances from her neighbourhood and the local area going about their everyday tasks and meeting up together.
The fascination of these harmless everyday scenes derives mainly from the detailed accuracy with which they are depicted and from the vivid, intimate atmosphere in which the actions are taking place. The prosaic ordinariness of the scenes gives the observer the feeling that they are actually taking part in whatever is going on. The casualness and familiarity that emanate from the images draw us in so that we unquestioningly accept the scenarios as convincing.
In keeping with her premise that "a photograph shows us what we know, yet contains its own fiction", Frey subjects the photographic image to close scrutiny with regard to pre-existing ideas about the meaning and truth that are inherent in photography.