Mary Frey, Reading Raymond Carver

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Peperoni Books (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 51 tritone reproductions. Includes an introduction by the artist and quotes by Raymond Carver. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: While a photographer’s early work most often provides only tantalizing hints of the themes and ideas that will become important later on, once in a while, the honesty and authenticity of those first pictures gives them a clarity of vision that looking back seems surprising in its sophistication. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that Mary Frey’s excellent late 1970s photographs taken in suburban Massachusetts, made just after she got out of graduate school and largely boxed away for decades, have this kind of singular resonance. After this initial project, she would go on to successfully extend her vision into color, adding captions and interior thoughts, and have her work exhibited in MoMA’s second New Photography exhibit (in 1986), but these early black and white scenes (as gathered in this project-based volume Reading Raymond Carver) retain a kind of magic that still feels pitch perfect after all these years.

Frey’s late 1970s pictures nestle into a largely unpopulated niche in the layered history of American photography. By that time, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus had gained broad attention in and around New York, telling visual stories drawn from city streets and chance encounters, while Robert Adams, Henry Wessel, Bill Owens, and others had turned their cameras to the West, looking at life in the newly built suburbs and California coastal cities. Cutting across these two intertwined paths were the photographers who had embraced color (William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, et al), their vision of America driven by a different aesthetic calculus. And with all of that activity as a backdrop, here was Mary Frey, shooting large format black and white images in the middle class suburbs and neighborhoods of her home in the Northeast. Looking back, her approach seems like a stroke of obvious practicality (it was of course what was near at hand and well understood to Frey at the time), but also a harbinger of things to come. Larry Sultan, Doug Dubois, Christine Osinski, and others would soon turn their cameras to the regional nuances of suburban families in the 1980s, and Frey’s images stand up well to what would come along later.

Having myself grown up at roughly the same time as Frey’s pictures were taken, I can heartily attest to their exacting stylistic perfection. The game of Monopoly at the kitchen table, the gleefully oblivious singing along to tunes using headphones with an insanely long kinked cord connected to the stereo, the spinning basketball showing off in the driveway, and the improvised boy’s game of guns, drumsticks, and cardboard packing boxes all ring true with a kind of nostalgic rightness that says that she too noticed the tiniest of details and gestures that made these moments memorable. Her pictures are filled with wonderfully dated but resonant signifiers – the Farrah Fawcett feathered hair poster, the stand-up video game, the 8-track player (with Led Zeppelin in and Bob Seeger waiting), the Raisin Bran and cigarettes breakfast combo, the Wonder Bread picnic, the science project volcano made in the basement – each a single frame story about the rhythms of life in suburban American at that particular moment.

But the fact that Frey used a 4×5 camera to make these pictures gives them a slightly unexpected conceptual twist. Such a big bulky camera couldn’t possibly be used to catch fleeting moments – it had to be set up and tended to to make the exposures. So all of the moments we see in these pictures aren’t strictly documentary – they are a bit, I suppose, in that Frey may have come upon scenes in her own home or elsewhere in the neighborhood that she wanted to photograph and then asked people to wait while she wrangled the camera, but by definition, they also have a hint of directing or recreating going on, Frey asking a subject to hold a pose, or do it again, or just sit still a while. So Frey’s early works have more in common with Tina Barney’s family tableaux than with the work of her small camera contemporaries – reality had to be patient and play along with her deliberate process, giving her a chance to tune the nuances of the visual stories she wanted to tell.

As photobooks go, this is an example of a publication that is entirely about celebrating the quality of the photographs. There are no tricky page cuts or design elements, no archival insertions or funky paper changes. The black and white images are generally shown one to a spread, with plenty of white space around them to give them room to breathe. The tritone reproductions are well executed, the sequencing makes sense, and there is just enough movement back and forth between left and right to break down any page turn monotony. It’s the kind of book you make when you know that many of the pictures are great and you don’t want to draw attention away from a dedicated and thoughtful process of looking at them.

This photobook has the potential to reinsert Frey back into a historical discussion from which she has largely been left out, making a compelling case for her rightful inclusion among the cross currents in late 1970s American photography. In many ways, it takes the memories of a family album and transforms them into durable art, taking the specifics of wet dogs, blown bubbles, home-baked pies, and cars washed in the driveway and making them universal.

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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