This interview took place over telephone between NY and Memphis, January 1983.
Allen Frame In the early to mid ’70s when I met you and before you started photography, you had close contact with quite a few photographers.
Mary Mhoon I did.
AF Perry Walker, of course, Lyn Gardiner, Bill Eggleston. Stephen Shore, Murray Riss, Lee Friedlander, and some of them stayed at your house in Memphis . . .
MM William Christenberry, John Gossage, Richard Pare.
AF I find it interesting that after that kind of exposure you chose a format that was so seemingly naive—the Diana Camera. How did you decide to do that?
MM Well, I liked the camera because it was easy to operate, and I don’t like machines because I’m easily intimidated by them. I think of myself that way anyway, the camera was given to me by an irritated photographer who was tired of my making suggestions to him. So I picked it up and started to understand it. I had enjoyed being around those photographers. It must have affected me in some way, but I’m not aware of influences.
AF When did you know you were going to do photography? When the camera was presented to you? Or before?
MM When the camera was presented to me, I began, very slowly, to take photographs. And I mean, maybe ten rolls in 1979, my first year. I treated it seriously. I think it is a serious camera so my shots were not grabbed.
AF I can see that from the first photographs you did with it.
MM Also, the simplicity of the camera, the child-like quality of it, appealed to me because I think of my work as being very simple. It’s two-fold—I mean it can be spare as a whippet or lush to the point of squalor, but I think that what I feel most comfortable with is the leanest image because it’s more related to primal images—the kind of thing one thinks of being known before it’s seen and being retained after one is blind. When I was entertaining all those photographers they were usually staying at my house, or I was having dinner parties for them, I had no interest in taking photographs
AF Do you think that other than the camera’s being easy to operate, and given its simplicity, there is also a moving away from the pompous hardware of 4 × 5 cameras, tripods, etc. that were big in the ’70s?
MM Maybe, but of course I didn’t originate the concept of elevating this toy to an instrument for eternal art or anything like that. But certainly the dream quality of its benign distortion someone called it, the fuzziness at the edges appealed to me. The camera’s not made anymore.
AF What is the main stylistic issue in your work?
MM The nature of my business is tombstone . . . which is a line I cribbed off a Reverand Milam in Byhalia, Mississippi, who makes tombstones. But themes of fear and loss emerge. There’s something bony about them which I like. When it shows up I like it.
AF Of any of the photographers working in the last 15 years, is there one who’s most important to your work? Not to your life, but to your work?
MM No, I don’t I think of “bodies of work” of other photographers, except Paul Strand. Bill Brandt definitely. But I think more of individual images. I may even forget what photographer did them.
AF That’s interesting because I think you rarely see a discussion of the history of photography in terms of specific photographs. Well that’s not true. There’s Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs . . .
MM Collectors are advised to buy the weakest work of a well-known artist always instead of a very strong anonymous work, which is interesting. I guess collectors are in the business of having appreciating collections. But that wouldn’t interest me at all.
AF Do you think it is easier for a photographer to exist outside of NY than a painter or sculptor maybe?
MM I don’t know, Allen, about that. I know in Memphis, the hottest shots around are hardly those heard “’round the world” and vice versa. Memphis and the great outside seem to be mutually exclusive. There’s a voodoo spirit in Memphis that swallows people. It’s as if Memphis was built over a swamp. Every now and then, talented people seem to be sucked under, and they’re never heard from again.
AF Is it difficult to have a long term relationship with another photographer?
MM No. I find it . . . the photographer that I live with, am in love with, was the irritated professional that slammed the camera down in my hand.
AF The Diana camera?
MM Yes and he has taught me how to print and I might never have been a photographer . . . probably under other circumstances . . . I hope I would have.