About the Photographer
My lens is attracted to people and their inner strengths and support systems. I have photographed relatively unknown, quietly productive groups of people who have managed to achieve stable, purposeful, gainful lives, and have surmounted various adversities. I photograph their joys and their day-to-day problems. – Mary Koga
Mary Koga's work, much of which was bequeathed to the Museum of Contemporary Photography upon her death in 2001, falls into three distinct categories. The first, her Floral Forms series, was begun in 1972 and explores delicate, concentrated images of flowers displayed before unimposing backgrounds, both in color and black and white. Reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings, these images reframe our instinctual perceptions of the flowers, demonstrating the beauty of their natural forms. The Hutterites, on the other hand, constructed between 1972 and 1980, takes a vastly different approach, both in form and content. Traveling to rural Alberta, Canada, Koga photographed members of the isolated religious community, many of whom had never been photographed before. Her striking frontal perspectives give a deceptively basic presentation, emphasizing the simple lifestyle and thus giving the people a documentary sense of "otherness." Finally, her series Portrait of the Issei in Illinois, 1986-89, explores the lives of first-generation Japanese immigrants (Issei) in Illinois, tracing Koga's cultural heritage. The simple constructions of the images, including the natural light, frontal poses, and informal atmosphere, allow Koga to intimately explore the histories of her subjects through their physiognomy. As Margaret Gillham, curator of the Chicago Cultural Center, wrote, "… Mary Koga captures the vital essence of her subjects. Her engaging images disclose intrinsic truths, enlighten and prompt epiphanies."
Though born in Sacramento, California, Mary Koga lived and worked in Chicago until her death in 2001. Koga earned a BA from University of California, Berkeley (1942), an MA from the University of Chicago's School of Social Work (1947), and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago 1973). A social worker for over twenty years, Koga turned to her lifelong hobby, photography, in the late 1960s, after attending the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Her works have been exhibited in over fifty galleries, including the Smith Barney Gallery in New York and the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont, and are included in the collections at the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Balch Institute, Philadelphia; and the Art Museum of South Texas, among others.