An Unexpected Pleasure: Vintage photographs by Mari Mahr

[A piece to accompany an exhibition of works by Mari Mahr in a small gallery in Brighton.]

Mari Mahr – A Day by the River

Private view: 19th May 2015. 18:00 – 20:00

All welcome

6 Dorset Place

Brighton BN2 1ST


The show will certainly run until the end of May;  actual final date yet to be decided.

This announcement only appears here because the opportunity to put on this show came very late. I have been given the chance to use a small university space in a building on the edge of Kemp Town in Brighton, and the chance is too good to pass up.

Mari Mahr, Introduction 9, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Introduction 9, From A Day by the River (1980)

If you’re in Brighton for the Fringe, add a really remarkable exhibition to your plans. The public opening is on 19th, and I’d like as many people as possible to be there. I’m frank to say I want to show that there is appetite for really good photography in Brighton, a place with surprisingly few galleries.   Spread the word, and come on 19th May.

My little show is of vintage pictures by Mari Mahr from the 1980s. It is centred around an amazing series called A Day by the River. These have never been exhibited before, a survival of a set of vintage C-types from 1980 itself, when Mari Mahr was just beginning to get confidence in her techniques and her way of seeing.

Improbably based on a London Transport leaflet on the river-side pleasures to be found to the west of London, these little prints are a lot of things at the same time.

Mari Mahr, Richmond 3, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Richmond 3, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Teddington 2, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Teddington 2, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Kingston 4, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Kingston 4, From A Day by the River (1980)

They are dreamy meditations on walking.   My impression is that Mahr did not know London well in 1980 — she’d arrived only a few years before, after all. She had taken a course at the Polytechnic of Central London to widen her vocabulary from the photojournalism she had practised previously, and presumably needed processing time to digest a new city, new worlds, new habits. So she walked. Many artists walk, and not just the Francis Alys ones or the Richard Long ones who turn it into a ‘formal’ part of their practice. Mahr is not an impetuous artist; her concerns have always been about how emotion and memory and reactions to things combine in a person to make the character and the culture that they have. Walking is the natural way to let those complex ingredients mix. Many years later, at a time of great personal sadness, she made series which are more formally identified as ‘walking series’, but A Day by the River is not. It’s full of paths and has the lovely shifting focus from tiny details seized en passant to the bigger milder washes of sky and water. It may have been slightly melancholic — Mahr deals in melancholy like a country and western singer, as an inescapable part of the human condition — but it was lyrical, too. I imagine her swinging slowly along the towpath, dangling a camera on a strap and allowing a bucolic or georgic mood to wipe away the more urban one she had left behind for the day.

It’s also a series of considerable technical invention. Full of complex overlays of work on both print and negative, these are pictures which would in another time have been described as objects of ‘vertu’, the word from which we get ‘virtuosity’. They are tiny little pieces of marvellous skill. It sounds odd to call a row of faded C-types jewel-like; but that’s what they are. Mahr reclaimed the photograph as an object of craftsmanship. She layered her pictures with scratching and hand colouring and bits of collage. It was experimental, but one glance at the series will tell you that it was already the finished mastery of a great communicator. I first saw these pictures before I’d met the artist; I knew right away that she was more interested in the poetic aspects of life, the unspoken and perhaps unconscious than she was in fact. And so it proved.

If you can make it to the show, you will see that the numbering of the series is not quite consecutive. It seems likely that this near-complete series is all that survives. Twenty little prints in all. Twenty fascinating insights into the developing mind of an artist already then well set on her way.

The show also includes one single picture from the Georgia O’Keeffe series, which I wrote about in the Financial Times some time ago.

Mari Mahr, Canyon 1916, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, Canyon 1916, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

This is what I said:

” Mari Mahr is a brilliant artist of Hungarian origin who divides her time between London and Berlin. Too gentle a person ever really to push herself forward, Mahr has had the kind of career which is faultless, but not really very visible. No longer a young woman, she remains insufficiently appreciated by a large factor. She works in relatively small series, often about her family, occasionally about figures of more public standing. In series after series, she has produced works of astute elegance seeking to situate her own affective existence among the objects of affection or culture around her. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible in exquisite delicacy in the photographic object. By quality of work, she is one of the very great artists of recent years; by the amount of limelight shone upon her, almost invisible.

In 1982, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe. This is how she herself described it:

“In the very last scene of a documentary movie, an old woman climbs a ladder all the way to the top of her house. I was impressed by the strength and charisma of such an old woman and decided to find out more about her. I learnt she was partly Hungarian, but what is more important I absolutely loved how her career came about, the way she made her choices, how she chose her men, how she made situations awkward for herself, painting away when it wasn’t a womanly thing to do.

I’d read her diary where she writes so eloquently about Taos, Black Place and so on — I saw it all in colour. This was before I’d been to America, so all the knowledge of the country came from Technicolor movies. I did the series in 1982, about her travels in the 1920s, using a black car like the one Stieglitz (the photographer, her husband) had given her.”

It sounds simple, and so perhaps it is, once you’ve done it. By making the stagey elements of her pictures completely apparent, Mahr let us know immediately that we weren’t looking at fact. Every standard picture element is up for revision: scale, perspective, narrative… this is a complete taking of control by the artist of those things which more normally constrain photographers. The obvious edges and folds, the block colours, the ultra-plain symbolic elements (skyscraper, cow, adobe, car, flag…) give the clues to a reading of O’Keeffe’s story which is both heroic and curiously domestic in scale. What results is a tribute and a separate work in its own right. Mahr has admiration and respect for O’Keeffe, and a point of humour about her, too.

These are variants of collage, set design, maybe diorama. A few recurring themes make them understandable as music. They’re lovely as little post-cards, and sensational as the chapters in an episodic biography. They’re anything you like except flat photographs. No matter that it is little known; this is one of my great series. ”

Mari Mahr, New Mexico 1931, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, New Mexico 1931, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, New York 1925, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, New York 1925, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

It will be apparent by now that I am a fan as well as a critic and curator of these pictures. They are fantastic, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

To put it quite plainly, I am proud to find even a little space to show them, and hope that as many of you as possible will crowd the place on 19th May in the evening.

It’s terribly short notice.  Never mind, spread the word by the miracles of Web2.0, and the effort won’t be wasted.

5 thoughts on “An Unexpected Pleasure: Vintage photographs by Mari Mahr

    • Thank you for asking. It is, although its final date is still not known. To explain: the space is available thanks in part to a refurbishment programme and the timings are not by any means only dependent on the needs of the gallery. However, until 15th June I think it’s safe to predict it will be there and I hope you can enjoy it.

  1. Hello Francis, I thought Mari was beginning to get her ‘confidence’ earlier than the 1980’s, when I saw her exhibition ‘Isolated Incidents at the Photographers’ Gallery in 1977.
    A lot of us walked in those days, it was, as you correctly point out, a part of one’s practice. I was talking about this recently with Pablo (Ortiz Monasterio) a friend of mine and Mitra Tabrizian from that period. We are all still walking.
    I am looking forward to seeing the work on the 19th – is there a private view?

  2. Hello Francis

    I hope you are well.

    How delightful.

    Mari’s work is fascinating and wonderful. We produced a retrospective with her back in 1994, which is an age ago now. I am pleased to say that we have her work in the Collection as a result.

    I am sadly busy on the 19th. How long will the work be on show?

    With very best wishes, Greg

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