Mary Beth Meehan
During the ONWARD ‘11 exhibition at the RING CUBE gallery in Tokyo last month, Tsuyoshi sat down with Mary Beth Meehan in Hibiya Park, where they discussed her long-term project, City of Champions, and the impact of the show in Japan.
Mary Beth was selected by Larry Fink to received the ONWARD ‘11 Juror Award for her image “Ashleigh’s Bouquet” from City of Champions. This current project is a portrait of her hometown Brockton, MA, and continues her study of issues that define, change, and inspire communities. Mary Beth will lead a two-day workshop, The Personal Project, at Project Basho on July 23 & 24. Hear Mary Beth talk about her work in community photojournalism in this interview with Tsuyoshi.
Mary Beth Meehan: My name is Mary Beth Meehan. I’m a photographer and I’m very proud to have a photograph in the ONWARD ‘11 show that was shown at Project Basho in Philadelphia and is now here at Ring Cube Gallery in Tokyo.
Tsuyoshi Ito: Mary Beth, what do you think about the show at Ring Cube?
MM: I thought the show looked beautiful. It’s a beautiful, very modern gallery. It was wonderful to see it in this completely different context. Ring Cube gallery is like Times Square times ten, and so it’s wonderful to go in that environment and see our beautiful show that started at Project Basho in Philadelphia.
TI: It’s almost difficult to fathom that the things that we saw in our gallery for a long time are actually in the middle of Tokyo. That’s just kind of interesting.
MM: Totally, I mean, I can’t believe that the girl that I photographed, she’s so much a part of that city, which is so local and community based to me, that she’s here in Tokyo, and 300 Japanese people a day are looking at her and thinking about her. That really blows my mind.
TI: Yeah, that is really wild. Tell me a little bit about your picture that is in the show, and a little bit about the project that you are working on.
MM: The picture that’s in the show is from a body of work called City of Champions, which is based in my hometown, Brockton, Massachusetts. Brockton is a postindustrial city. It was a shoe manufacturing city and a thriving place that has had the same decline as many postindustrial American cities. So, it’s very personal in that it’s where I’m from and where four generations of my family are from, but it’s also reflective of what’s happening in so many American cities. There’s a lot of emotion on the part of people who have seen their city decline, and then a lot of resentment to newcomers, a lot of misunderstanding about why it is the way it is and placing blame on the newcomers for what’s happened to the city in general. So, it’s a very complicated emotional topic.
The photography that I’ve been doing there has been a way of trying to understand the changes, trying to understand who lives there, and trying to get through the perception of the place to something that’s a little more honest and underneath all that.
The picture that’s in the show is of a girl holding a bouquet of flowers. It was a day I was driving through a particularly depressed part of town, and I saw this girl walking with her friends, holding this beautiful spring bouquet. It seemed like such a bright spot in this depressed landscape, and so I hopped out of the car. They had stolen those flowers from the city hall area, so from the public. That put a little kind of interesting spin on it – I had ambivalence about those flowers once I found out that they chopped them down at city hall.
That little bit of tension to me kind of sums up the place, and so that photo feels very much like that place. There’s something a little bit unsettling and also beautiful on a depressed landscape.
TI: How long have you been working on this project?
MM: I started photographing when my second son was born in the end of 2005.
TI: So you have this body of work, and then ONWARD is sort of one outlet, but you are also thinking of other venues or other ways to work that out. Tell me a little bit about that.
MM: I’ve had some exhibitions as the work has been in progress, but right now I am working with the city and with the college that’s near there to create a public installation of the pictures as large format banners in the downtown. So we really are interested in the juxtaposition, not seeing the photographs in a kind of removed gallery, but bringing people into the heart of this declined place. And also to consider the photographs as narratives, almost as narrative portraits of the people who live there. There is this tension between the old timers who feel like it’s gone, and the newcomers who feel like they have an investment in the place. We’re hoping to have 12 X 8 ft banners on buildings in the downtown area. I think it could be really exciting.
TI: In terms of seeking ways to show your work, I think it’s a little bit out of convention in a way – it’s not like a typical gallery setting, it’s more a public art project. Tell me what you think about that process: presenting the work in an unconventionally defined way in terms of how photography is usually done.
MM: I like the idea of having that exhibition available as part of this whole project – I don’t see it as one thing or the other thing. The public art installation part of it is unconventional, but I like the way that it engages an audience that might not go to a gallery. This whole corridor of people who take public transportation, who live and work, who might not end up in a traditional gallery or in an art context can now interact with that work and be part of the conversation.
TI: You have a background in photojournalism working for a newspaper, and I think for the kind of work you have the typical gallery setting might not reach enough people and get them involved, because the nature of the work is more socially conscious.
MM: My goal is for the work to exist on many levels, for it to be as strong as it can be visually and aesthetically, and for it to be able to stand on its own on that level. I don’t want it to be strictly documentary in the sense that it’s not taking into account those issues. What I’ve realized is that it’s touching on issues of who the city wants to be. It’s touching on real essential identity issues about the place: who does it want to reflect itself to be?
TI: You’ve been in Tokyo having never been to Japan, meeting many people and going around different parts of the city. How’s that experience going for you?
MM: In speaking with Mr. Seidoh and Mr. Hashimoto at Pictorico and Ring Cube, their interest in Project Basho and in our work has made me see that these world wide connections of photographers are really quite small. Mr. Hashimoto sees the ONWARD show as a way of expanding some sense of photography here in Japan. It’s really exciting to me to be able to make these connections. You know that there’s relevance now on another level, which is how can photographers interact with each other, how can places like Ricoh or Project Basho create a venue for photographers to have an experience like this.
TI: So how do you see Japanese culture? You’ve been observing people’s mannerisms and sense of aesthetics, so what do you see in Japanese culture that you’ve been experiencing in the past couple days?
MM: It’s really wonderful, I’ve really been sort of studying the way that people put textures and color together. And ancient Japanese history is right there on the surface alongside the really chrome and glitzy modern. We go to this chrome and glitzy modern building to meet the gentleman from Pictorico, but then we go and eat tempura at this place where the women are dressed in muted kimono and it’s just visually mind blowing.
TI: So what are you hoping to do for the rest of your stay?
MM: Well, I feel very torn because I know this disaster is happening north of here, and so the journalist and documentarian in me feels like I want to go up there and see what’s happening. Then the tourist in me who’s always wanted to go to Japan wants to go to Kyoto and see the gardens and the landscape there, and really experience that old fashioned historic Japan. So, I feel very uneasy about the whole thing. I feel ambivalent about the fact that we have had such a good time here in Tokyo, but knowing that so many people are suffering so near by.
TI: Will you come back to Japan again?
MM: I would love to come back to Japan again! I would love to be involved in photography here some way.