In the constellation of all things photographic, the tension between reality and fiction has been explored by countless artists from numerous generations across the globe. Traditionally, we are taught that as soon as the subject of a photograph is posed—from casual portraiture to full-blown studio setups—it loses the authority of reality. But what makes us trust photography outside of these obvious setups as an objective record? Can photography really capture the truth? Why do we trust some photographs and not others? And what role does fiction play in visualizing real issues?
Photographer Mary Frey has grappled with these questions throughout her career, evidenced by her numerous projects that combine text with images, blurring the boundaries between true stories and fictional setups. Her series Domestic Rituals was shot in her own Massachusetts neighborhood between 1979 and 1984, culminating in a set of photographs of everyday middle-class suburban life. The photographs appear as candid snapshots—a familiar indicator of reality—of regular daily life. We believe in their ability to effectively capture and fossilize moments in time, and the less posed people seem, the more real Frey’s events appear. But in truth, each of the photographer’s images are intentionally styled and posed, even though the candid situations seem incredibly fleeting and mundane.
Our trust in photography is the driving force behind Frey’s work, and she turns this trust in on itself, playing with her viewers’ beliefs. “This project grew out of my fascination with the snapshot as a vessel for, and a shaper of memory,” she explains. “I sought out particularly banal situations and posed my subjects to appear as if they were truly engaged in their activities. The pictures, which have a quasi-documentary look to them, resemble a kind of tableau-vivant.” Our internalized trust is extended to all features of Frey’s images, including the equipment she used to make each photograph. “The tools I chose to use—a large format camera, black and white film and diffuse flashbulb lighting—further enhance the stylized look of the images,” she explains. “At once, this body of work attempts to question the nature of photographic truth while using the iconography of middle class customs to comment on societal values and systems.”
In an upcoming exhibition at Copenhagen Photo Festival, Domestic Rituals appears alongside Frey’s later pseudo-reality exploration, titled Real Life Dramas. While these images seem documentary at first, they are completely staged, just like the earlier work. This time, Frey employs the use of a chromogenic color scheme, and captions each image with a brief, leading text. She explains, “The texts, which are photographically generated and printed in the white space of the images, appropriate the language of popular dime store fiction and are oftentimes overblown or irrelevant. Their function is never quite clear and is chiefly meant to be fulcrum around which to operate a series of ideas.”
While both of these series were created in the 1980s, they eerily resonate today in today’s age of social media, which drives us to share daily visual documentation of our own “reality”; getting that perfect shot of an outfit or meal, disclosing the location through geotagging and visual cues. All of these moments are meant to seem candid, but in order to make these images, we briefly push aside our presence in the moment, generating a series of outtakes until we get to our perfect, preferred representation. Everything around us becomes muted until we finally hit “post.”
It’s eerie looking through Frey’s images of family dinners, quiet moments and banal memories, because they highlight how easy it is to harness, mould and shape meaning in even the most basic scenes—all for a preconceived narrative or pointed intent. And if it’s easy to glance past these small moments, it’s easy to consume all photographs in this internalized, trusting way. If anything, we have become less aware of the deceptive qualities of photography over time, submitting to even accepting posed situations as real. Over two decades later, Frey demonstrates that her photographs are pertinent as ever.