Exhibition Exhibition & Publication Real Life Dramas Mary Frey

From July 13 to November 25 2019 at DISPLAY 01

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 l‘audiovisuel (CNA) 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 Frey’s 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 … Mary Frey.

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 Frey’s 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".


  • Curators
    Dr Norbert Moos en collaboration avec Michèle Walerich (CNA)

  • Assisted by
    Michelle Kleyr

  • Archival processing
    Mylène Carrière, Sophie Dewalque, Michelle Kleyr, Manon Pinatel

  • Light installation
    Romain Girtgen

  • Condition report
    Mylène Carrière

  • Technical crew
    Kurt Gelhausen, Alexandre Useldinger

  • Logistics
    Thomas Appel

  • Communication
    Anne-Laure Letellier

  • Translations
    Why Vanilla ?

  • Graphic Design
    Mike Lamy

  • in collaboration with Forum für Fotografie, Cologne.

Buy the catalogue



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. 

Only when we take a second, closer look at Mary Frey's pictures do we see that the perfection of the composition and lighting, the virtuosity of the chromatic harmony, could hardly be the result of a real-life snapshot taken spontaneously; rather, her artistic creativity is expressed to masterly effect in camera-work that has been planned down to the smallest detail. Spontaneity is artificially produced and is the result of a carefully prepared catalogue of scenes in which the events, gestures and characters that Frey regards as significant are presented as "prototypes" by using a large-format camera, a tripod and the diffuse light from single-use flashbulbs.

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.

Frey pays special attention to the way our individual self-understanding and social value systems are impregnated by the culture of remembrance and by the contemporary context. That is why she so often references the influence of pop culture in her work. We can see how Mary Frey is apparently inspired by the ubiquity of the sitcoms and soap operas shown on TV, cheap novels and magazines like Look, LIFE and Good Housekeeping. She uses the situations depicted there as a kind of exemplary moment in her compositions.  

This is particularly true of her black-and-white pictures which capture the atmosphere and dynamic of the American middle-class family in the 70s and 80s. In the later, colour photographs for Real Life Dramas, Mary Frey went one step further and used short extracts of text from pop culture that load the banal, everyday scenes with contrived drama as a foil for her work.

In this way, the original unit of meaning of a documentary image, subsequently exposed as being artificially staged, is finally, in a further stage of ironic refraction and deliberate paradoxical confusion, reduced to absurdity. An unbridgeable gulf between the photographic depiction and the inner psychic reality of the people in the picture is exposed by Frey and presented as an issue. Nevertheless, Frey will not bow before the paradox between image and identity.

Like an iconologist who deconstructs an artwork by historical analysis and studies it as evidence of universal cultural phenomena, Frey uses the artistic process to reflect on the inventory of images that she uses. For this photographer, what can actually be depicted, and the deliberately banal, are just the starting points for reflecting on the multi-layered nature of mental states and how they can be conveyed.

Gail Buckland summed this up in her analysis of Frey’s work, comparing it with the artist’s main role model, Diane Arbus:

"Both women wanted to penetrate private places and be privy to intimate moments. Both women crossed accepted boundaries, Arbus by daring to 'stare' at those on the fringe of society and enter the private worlds of transvestites, dwarfs and the mentally deranged; Frey by setting her camera up in bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens of productive, family-oriented middle-class Americans who were doing nothing out of the ordinary. The drama for Arbus was in how people looked. The drama for Frey is how people think and relate." (see the exhibition catalogue for “Mary Frey - Real Life Dramas”, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC, 1987).



Artist Biography 

Mary Frey graduated from Yale University School of Art in 1979 with a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and then taught photography at the Hartford Art School (until 2015). She has received numerous awards and fellowships for her work: a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1980/1992), a fellowship from the TeFoundation (2004) and an artist’s grant from the John Anson Kittredge Fund (2010). 

During the 1994-95 academic year, Mary Frey was the Harnish Visiting Artist at Smith College, Northampton, MA. In spring 2001 she completed a residency at the Burren College of Art, County Clare, Ireland.

There have been many exhibitions of Frey’s work and it is to be found in both private and public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Art Institute of Chicago and the International Polaroid Collection. In 2017 the Berlin publisher Peperoni Books published the book Reading Raymond Carver, a collection of early photographs by Mary Frey. The book immediately entered the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation’s shortlist for the 2017 “Best First Photo Book” award. In 2018 her second book Real Life Dramas was published, also by Peperoni Books.

Mary Frey lives in Massachusetts, United States.


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