Mary Frey, My Mother, My Son

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by TBW Books (here). Flexicover with tipped-in chromogenic print, 12 x 10 inches, 72 pages, with 12 color and 21 duotone plates. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we last wrote about Mary Frey (here), her photo career had just been rejuvenated by the monograph Reading Raymond Carver. Published in 2017, the book featured black-and-white photographs from roughly 1979-1983, made just after Frey had received her Yale MFA. The project depicted friends, family, and strangers photographed near her home in Massachusetts. At an initial glance the situations appeared deceptively candid. But most were carefully arranged in faux-documentary style. 

Coming seemingly out of nowhere 35 years into Frey’s professional career—she was 69 when it was published, and recently retired from teaching—the monograph received wide acclaim and went quickly out of print. Frey followed it up the next year with Real Life Dramas, with photographs of similar subject matter, provenance, and methodology, but this time in color.

As is often the case with later curations of vintage archives, it turns out there was more material where the first batch came from. It was just a matter of rolling up the editing sleeves, diving in, extracting the right photographs, and—the tricky part—curating them in a meaningful way. Follow these steps with care and you’ll get something like My Mother, My Son. Frey’s latest book serves as both an addendum and companion volume to its two predecessors. The photos are drawn from the same general body of work and time period. But since this is a new go-round with a new editor—Frey’s original publisher Peperoni is sadly kaput—the approach is slightly different. Most notably, the new book blends black-and-white and color photography in one volume. TBW has inserted its design presence in subtler ways too, with a flexibound cover, tipped in c-print, rounded page corners to mimic an old scrap album, and a minimalist one-photo-per spread layout.

Frey’s working process was a delicate blend of staged situations and improvisational performance. She would situate her subjects into orchestrated arrangements, then wait patiently for things to happen. “I sought out particularly banal situations and posed my subjects to appear as if they were truly engaged in their activities,” she explains. “The pictures, which have a quasi-documentary look about them, resemble a kind of tableau-vivant.” Her creative process might be roughly comparable to Curb Your Enthusiasm, with choreographed sets providing backdrops for improvised photo ops. 

“For me,” she explained in Reading Raymond Carver, “a simple gesture, the quotidian moment, or a descriptive element could hold significance beyond its purpose.” Frey used a cumbersome 4 x 5 view camera and diffused flash which flooded light evenly across the frame and into every corner. When applied to humans in household interiors near bedrooms, kitchens, and dining tables, the psychological effect was benign and soothing. 

In the four decades years since, they’ve taken on another dimension: nostalgia. The eighties were another universe indeed, with yesteryear fashions, hairstyles, and cultural icons. These threads knit the supporting fabric of Frey’s photos. Today some of their sheer viewing pleasure derives from bygone artifacts. Tank tops, corduroy jeans, and an old Ford truck date a backyard scene with kids and a garden snake. Another shot is time warped by a banana-seat bike and bellbottoms, while Bruce Lee’s face peers out from a wall poster in another shot. If some photographs could pass for lifestyle product ads from Good Housekeeping or The Saturday Evening Post, that was exactly the point. Frey attempted to cast an outsider’s overview on cultural norms, even as she was knee deep in the period. As she explains it, “this body of work attempts to question the nature of photographic truth while using the iconography of middle class customs to comment on societal values and systems.”

Although most of its pictures date back to the early eighties, My Mother, My Son takes its name and inspiration from a more recent photograph. The final image is a 2004 color snapshot showing Frey’s adult son framed in a bedroom doorway, holding Frey’s elderly mother aloft in his arms. One of photography’s special gifts is the ability to bind generations in a single glance. Frey has leveraged that fact here in a touching moment. 

Since this is the book’s coda and the only photo captioned, it seems natural to view it as a key to unlock the main body. Frey’s mother and son appeared as recurring motifs in Reading Raymond Carver. Could they be present here too? If so, the visual trail is thinner. That may be her son as an infant sleeping on the sofa. Is that Frey’s mother in the book’s very first photo? She seems to share the same nose and posture as the 2004 figure, but the resemblance is faint and it’s hard to be certain. Connections are tempting, but with no captions or information they remain educated guesses. Oh well. Older photographs acquire layers of mystery over time, whether passed down in an family sprapbook or a carefully edited fine art monograph. “The beginning and end of the journey are beyond our vision,” reads a simple passage mid-way through the book. “We only see what is in front of us.”

Fair enough. But wait a moment. It turns out there may be another clue to unlock the journey. Frey’s black-and-white photographs were exhibited shortly after they were made, in a 1985 show called “Domestic Rituals” at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, supported by a 1984 Guggenheim fellowship. Better yet, a current print-on-demand catalog reproduces most of the show’s photos. There we find several from Reading Raymond Carver and a scattering from My Mother, My Son, mixing interchangeably in Pangean form before they were split into separate books. The catalog tantalizes with a double-spread crowd shot at a sporting event, which almost perfectly mirrors the color double-page center spread of My Mother, My Son. These spectator shots seem to encourage the reader. Pull up a seat and observe, they say. What you see might surprise you.

A contemporaneous essay by Carol Squires offers more insight. “Frey’s pictures are a trenchant comment on the very nature of contemporary reality, on the gap between how it has been defined for us and how we are living it,” she writes. “By restating reality, Frey attempts to close that gap, both in what she sees and what she remembers.” This was written in 1984. Undoubtably the gap has widened since. For Frey, the revisitation of old photographs, and their subsequent curation into publications like My Mother, My Son, might be a step toward personal reconciliation.

If it’s given her memories a boost, her career has followed a similar trajectory. In fact, Frey’s path has been modeled by others of late, as we experience a mini-wave of rediscovered female colleagues. Peggy Nolan’s Juggling Is Easy (also published by TBW, and reviewed here) reassessed family photos from decades ago. Mimi Plumb has enjoyed late career success plumbing her early work in a series of recent monographs (reviewed here and here). And several members of Frey’s 1980s Massachusetts photo circle have published archive-mining monographs recently, among them Sage Sohier (reviewed here and here), Joan Albert, Judith Black (reviewed here), and Sheron Rupp (reviewed here). Most have focused on family, neighborhoods, portraiture, and the essential bonds of humanity. All are welcome, especially as they address former curatorial oversights. My Mother, My Son adds generational context to Frey’s oeuvre, along with another trove of forgotten pictures.

Collector’s POV: Mary Frey does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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