Georgia O’Keeffe by Mari Mahr

 

New Mexico 1931

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

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.”

New York 1925

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

 

New York 1918

Mari Mahr – New York 1918.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934

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

Black Place 1944

Mari Mahr – Black Place 1944.    From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

georgia_o_keeffe_ghost_ranch_1941

Mari Mahr – Ghost Ranch 1941.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

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.

Canyon 1916

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

[Another in the series Hodgson’s Choice, assembling a virtual collection guided by no more than my own taste, interest, curiosity, amusement or any combination of those. This piece was originally published in the Financial Times in January 2013 and reposted as part of a larger piece on these pages in 2015.]

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An Unexpected Pleasure: Vintage photographs by Mari Mahr

Mari Mahr – A Day by the River

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

All welcome

6 Dorset Place

Brighton BN2 1ST

UK

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.

Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry

It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.

Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points.  So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures:  a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community.  The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story.  More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling.  Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different.  Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron.  Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect.  Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption.  When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed.  Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness:  we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it.  To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter.  They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together.  In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts.  Two men cross in an alley.  Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place.  We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera.  But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion.  There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right.  It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place.  The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important.    Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below.  Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space.  You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography.  The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first.  Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here.   Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger.  In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.

There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique.  There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner.  Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering.  Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer.  Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point.  There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera.  A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth.  It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left.  But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.

Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it.  I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought.   There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones.  Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth.  But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor.  It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again.  Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths?  They’re factual, sure enough.  But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt.  But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that.  Great photographers don’t, and why should they?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.

It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture.  Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency.  But something has changed.  Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing.  It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before.  Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer.  Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’.  Photographers are different.  They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth.  Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.

The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion.  “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.”  That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important.  Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing.  It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way.  Every truth has been told.  The truth is no longer enough.

A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”.  You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.