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My Mother, My Son: Reviewed by Brian Arnold

Book Review My Mother, My Son Photographs by Mary Frey Reviewed by Brian Arnold "I want to start by saying that I’ve been unable to learn much about artist Selina Kudo, short of an installation she composed for the Tanks Art Centre in Australia in 2022 (a conceptual piece about backyard trampolines)..."

My Mother, My Son. By Mary Frey.
My Mother, My Son
Photographs by Mary Frey
TBW Books, Oakland, CA 2024. 72 pp., 12 color / 21 duotone plates, 12x10".

"I was becoming alive to certain essential qualities in family photographs. Above all I admired what the camera made. The whole person was presented to the camera. There was no interference, or so it seemed. And sometimes the frame cut through the world with a surprise. There could be no doubt that the picture belonged more to the world of things and facts than to the photographer."

— Emmet Gowin

I am of the belief that Emmet Gowin deserves credit for bringing the family album to discussions of fine art photography. He certainly wasn’t the first artist to photograph his family — many of the Pictorialist photographers like Clarence White worked almost solely with their families, and Emmet’s mentor Harry Callahan made remarkable photographs of his wife and daughter — but somehow Emmet changed things. His photographs are often arcane and layered with thick metaphysical questions, but he also photographed Christmas morning, family camping trips, and his children at play in the backyard. These pictures in turn influenced generations of new photographers, including Sally Mann, Tina Barney, and Doug Dubois.

Enter Mary Frey, an artist who again challenges distinctions between fine art and family albums. Frey is an incredibly interesting photographer whose work has come to light late in her career. After completing an MFA at Yale University in 1979 (just missing Walker Evans), Frey spent the next decades teaching at the Hartford Art School and making pictures of her family. Her first book, Reading Raymond Carver in 2017, was an immediate favorite in photobook publishing. Since then, Frey has published two more monographs, Real Life Dramas (with an essay by Tim Carpenter) and now My Mother, My Son. Like her contemporary Peggy Nolan, Frey brilliantly demonstrates that a relentless, unflinching look at our most banal selves — little league games, high school dances, garden snakes and pet rabbits, a first bb gun, Bruce Lee movies, and a flat tire on a blinged up Schwinn 5-speed — can show complex ideas about being a middle-class American during the Reagan and Clinton years.

Published by TBW, My Mother, My Son is presented as nothing more than an album. The front cover has a classic photo of Americana tipped-in by its corners; it’s a young man wearing a ¾ sleeved t-shirt and Adidas Stan Smiths, taking aim with his new rifle, as the photographer’s shadow is cast across the bottom left corner. It reminds me of pictures I saw in family albums when I worked at the Colorado History Museum in the 1990s, no different than Brownie photographs of hunters trying out their new goods in the backyards of Beuna Vista, CO, the same shadow of the photographer cast in the lower corner of the frame. Inside Frey’s album, however, we see something much more sophisticated; the intimacies of an ordinary New England family, played out against the backdrop of the repressive years of Reagan pitted against the scandals of Bill Clinton, striving to find themselves.

The book is composed of 33 photographs — both color and black-and-white — with just one image per page spread. Most of the pictures feature boys or young men, presumedly her children, with some photographs of other family members, neighbors, and friends. Frey’s photographs are beautifully executed and superbly reproduced in the book. I grew up in the 1980s-90s, and there are many signifiers in the book that seem familiar, be it the home décor or clothing found throughout the pictures. Just as importantly, the life she documents is true to many of us, a simple middle-class American existence.

I do have one minor criticism of Frey’s photographs in this book — her use of flash feels a little stale at times. I’ll offer the guess that when she uses strobe, it’s a small-ish camera mounted flash, she isn’t experimenting with the more even illumination of ring flash or connecting the lights off the camera body for my elusive effects. I do feel this approach to strobe lighting can appear brutal and clinical, not ideas that I feel best support or characterize Frey’s pictures.

Regardless, My Mother, My Son is worth the time (like most TBW publications). It is a meditation on motherhood, illustrating Frey’s investigation of what it means to raise boys. Through her lens, we watch her sons negotiate puberty, play, masculinity, learning to define themselves. As far as I can tell, we only see Frey’s mother one time, and it is the last photograph in the book. She appears frail and vulnerable, unable to take care of herself; Frey’s son carries her across the threshold into her own bedroom, and her death feels imminent. It’s a poignant image, and helps the reader situate Frey in the narrative; the pictures of her children really chronicle her own passage of time, surmised as we see the photographer’s mother on the verge of passing away, carried gently by the changing lineage of family.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.