First person: Mari Mahr - 60 Years of Photography

"I am 78 years old and I have been a photographer since my 18th birthday. That’s 60 years… 

All my friends at the time were film students and they needed a stills’ photographer. That’s how it all started … Together we spent most of our time in darkened projection rooms watching Nouvelle Vague films, amongst them Godard’s film ‘Breathless’ about an American trainee journalist working in Paris for the New York Herald Tribune. I loved it and, of course, I was going to become a press photographer.

I applied for an apprentice position at the Hungarian News Agency and for a place at the School of Journalism in Budapest. The competition was fierce and I started with a handicap. I was a woman and they thought I would eventually want children. Being 18 years old I unashamedly said never… I would never want children.

For two years I was carrying the heavy equipment of both male and female staff photographers and learnt a lot. Often assignments were handed over to me… I was thrown in at the deep end and learned on the job mostly working at the Cultural Department covering theatre, literature, music events but also required to do sport events.

My time there ended really badly. Not because I decided to have a child…that they swallowed, but because I was made to stand in front of a tribunal for my so called subversive political views. Both my parents were idealistic socialists and I took offence of career communists running the department. I voiced this opinion in a conversation and 7 month pregnant as I was at the time, I was let go… I lost my job.

It was not for my political views, however, why I left Hungary two years later. I married my second husband, a New Zealand illustrator Graham Percy living in London. Here I decided to pick up my camera again.

 When you find yourself in a different culture, though, you need time for reflection. At least this is how I felt.

I decided to study again and was looking for a place where I could do my research into alternative photographic processes. Prof Margaret Harker was the dean of the then PCL so I asked for an interview and that was that. I enrolled to do the BA course. The course as it was structured, was perfect for me. First year I learnt about the chemistry of photography and spent a lot of time in the dark room with my daughter hiding under the bench at school holiday times. We were scolded for that, but I survived. The second year Victor Burgin took over the course and I found myself in the deep end again… I really wished my English had been better. Still, I got my degree and with the work I made for my degree show, I applied for a show at the Photographers’ Gallery.

At the time there was a portfolio viewing, if I remember well, twice a year. And how lucky I was… a member of the selection committee on that occasion was a visiting American curator, who just loved my work… and I got my first public show. The other shows, just came out of that, one after an other, hugely helped later by Zelda Cheatle, who was branching out of the Photographers’ Gallery and Brett Rogers with the British Council touring show that even took me to Santiago de Chile where I was born.

There have been turning points though. Like in the 80-s when I felt I had to make up my mind, if I wanted to be considered an artist or a photographer. The galleries that included my work in their shows (for instance the Victoria Miro Gallery) demanded a different attitude to the media. They wanted one-off pieces of work at hugely inflated prices, but I was through and through a photographer and felt that the beauty of a photograph was, that it was infinitely reproduce-able. All this now sounds an irrelevant debate, still it steered me in another direction.

My choice at an other cross road was to pack my analogue kit and go full heartedly for all things digital in 1991, when the National Museum of Photography in Bradford gave me one of the first digital cameras to try for a limited period of time. There was so much talk about Photoshop and considering that I had already been making layered photographic images for more than a decade I could hardly wait for all the digital equipment, inks and paper to have the high standards and archival quality I required. This choice was inspired… for one… I don’t faint in the darkroom anymore.

I arrived to this country in 1972. I soon realised that I was out of my depth, so I turned to the things I understood, things I needed to say and my work turned autobiographical… I started talking about my memories of films I liked, people I admired and places in the world I loved, things I was concerned about, the fragile state of the earth for instance in Unconsciously, perhaps… in 1988, my concern about manipulative politicians, unsolvable historical grievances and immigration.

‘Between Ourselves’ I made in 1991/ 92, a set of 5 series about my Grandmother, My mother and My daughter is my home. Interestingly people who approach me to talk  about these, always talk about their own family… I like that. When these images are dismissed by people for whatever reason, I am very protective and over sensitive.

This work was first shown at the Photographers’ Gallery’s 1st floor Print Room near Leicester Square. I remember paving the walls with my prints that were quite large 24”x36” each and Francis Hodgson presenting them. He is still a huge fan.

Since my husband died, I have been rummaging through our house conversing with him, combining his drawings with my work. He would have liked that. He himself used to salvage my torn discarded photographs from the waste paper basket and drew on them, mostly jokingly.

In the last few years as my eyes started failing me, I decided to perfect a fully automatic version of my technically complicated technique so that I can continue.  I love the challenge and I am getting there… Looking at these more recent photographs, people seem to know they are my work." - Mari Mahr, 2020

Explore Mari Mahr's photographs in Artists

March 15, 2020