Exploring family, memory and legacy through photography

Exploring family, memory and legacy through photography

Photographer Mary Frey crafts a captivating chronicle of late 20th century American life that exists somewhere between reality, metaphor, and myth.

Growing up in Yonkers, photographer Mary Frey remembers standing on a hill with a sparkling view of the New York skyline in the distance. The city beckoned with promises untold. As the oldest of six children, Frey understood responsibility from a young age. She studied painting at the Hudson River Museum until happening upon a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment in the library. “That was it. I wanted to be a photographer,” says Frey.

Following her instincts, she began working with a large format camera to create shimmering tableaux of middle class life that move seamlessly between fact and fiction. “I’m not a documentary photographer but my work is about documentary photography,” says Frey.

Drawing inspiration from the groundbreaking projects produced by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, she recognised the narrative possibilities layered in the construction of the photograph. “I was always intrigued by how Roy Stryker gave the photographers a laundry list of things he felt they should be photographing in order to describe a particular place and time,” says Frey. “I thought about that like a challenge. Could I make interesting pictures of where I was? I didn’t know.”

The answer came to her one day as Frey watched her mother take a pie out of the over and hold it aloft, inadvertently covering the lower half of her face and replacing her mouth with a smile made of fresh baked goodness.

“That was the ‘aha!’ moment,” Frey remembers. “I said, Oh, my God, I need to make pictures of family life, the sort of evoke memories like snapshots. So I created a laundry list the way Roy Stryker did of things I wanted to photograph like a woman putting on her stockings.”

Frey began casting friends and family before setting out into the world to collaborate with strangers who were more than happy to participate. “I was questioning what I wanted to do as a young artist, woman, and photographer, trying on all the hats and seeing what I could do,” Frey says.

With the publication of My Mother, My Son (TBW Books), Frey crafts a captivating chronicle of late 20th century American life that exists somewhere between reality, metaphor, and myth. As imagemaker and author, Frey becomes the omniscient narrator, chronicling intimate scenes of everyday life that feel anything but staged.

“When you experience a photograph, you experience so many feelings, emotions, and uncertainties. I love that there can be one little detail that will really set it off,” says Frey. “I like them to hover between documentary and still life structure so that you don’t know whether you’ve caught them in the middle of a moment or if it’s something constructed for the camera.”

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