January 11, 2013 5:56 pm

‘Georgia O’Keeffe – New York, 1925’ by Mari Mahr

In the latest instalment in his series on his dream photography collection, FT critic Francis Hodgson looks at the work of a little-known Hungarian-born photographer
Mari Mahr 1981

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 very visible. Now in her seventies, she is valued far below her worth. She works in relatively small series that are 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 emotional life in the objects around her. These objects acquire their power through their attachment to the people who matter to her or the worlds to which they belong. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible by a comparable delicacy in the photographs themselves. 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 the early 1980s, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe. This is how she 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 1981, 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 that 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 that 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. They’re lovely as little postcards, 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.

This is part of a series on photography appearing in the FT and in FT Weekend. To see more selections, go to www.ft.com/hodgson

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