From The Edges: Mary Ellen Mark

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When first looking at the photography of Mary Ellen Mark, you might be tempted to compare her to Diane Arbus. They are both known for shooting the fringes of society, what Diane Arbus would call “the freaks”. There is a distinct difference, however, which is made clear when you examine them closely. Mark entrenches herself in the communities where she is shooting. Whether the slums of Mumbai, a ward of a mental institution, or shooting heroin addicts in London, she finds a way to connect with her subjects in a way that Arbus didn’t. Mark says of Arbus, “I think her photographs are graphically very different; they are more direct, but that she is a distant observer. My photographs are more emotional and perhaps less graphically direct. But I repeat, I think she was a great photographer.” The people in Mark’s photographs command respect. There is a common thread woven through her body of work; that the same humanity exists in all of us.

Mary Ellen Mark has been shooting for nearly five decades, beginning with a Fulbright scholarship to photograph in Turkey in 1965. She spent the next couple of years traveling all over Europe and India getting to know other cultures. When she came back to New York, it was with a new vision to move away from the mainstream and focus more on the fringes of society. She wanted, more than anything, to “acknowledge their existence”. This did not stop her from getting paying jobs within the mainstream, however. She found work shooting production stills on the sets of Hollywood movies. Her work soon began appearing in magazines such as Look and Life.

Mark’s big break came when she asked director Milos Forman if she could work on his new picture, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” There was no budget for a photographer so she worked for expenses only, but this experience afforded her the opportunity to work in a mental hospital, something she had always wanted to do. She got to know the hospital’s director and some of the women of the hospital’s maximum-security Ward 81. In 1976 she went back with writer Karen Folger Jacobs where they both lived with the women for six weeks. It was there that she completed her first long-term series, Ward 81, which became a turning point in the development of her style and her passion for people who “haven’t had the best breaks in society”. It was a project that was all her own, something that no one commissioned her for. She wanted only to show their personalities, to show their human side. “I did not go into Ward 81 to show some terrible injustice,” Mark says, “I wanted to show what institutionalization was like. I wanted to show what it felt like to be mentally ill. I wanted the individual images to be strong and to show the confusion and the pain of women who were mentally ill. It was not to show that it was weird or exotic… it was more that there is someone who could be me.”

This series led her on to even more personal projects. In 1978 she went back to India to photograph the prostitutes in Bombay. Although she had been there previously, this time she was able to gain the trust of some of the women and spent weeks living with them. She says, “…they were genuine friends. I would work all afternoon, then I’d go have dinner in the little restaurants on the street, and I could leave my cameras, bag, everything there with the women and nothing would ever be taken or touched. I trusted them totally.” This series of images, being in color, have a different look to them than her previous work. The color adds something of the culture behind each image. The personalities of the women don’t take center stage, but are merely a part of the whole. The color is a necessary element, however. If they had just been in black and white I think they would seem almost empty.

In between personal projects Mark was still on movie sets, films such as Apocalypse Now, Catch-22, Sleepy Hollow, and Australia. It didn’t matter where she was though as long as she was able to shoot people. That is what interests her, whether they are Hollywood movie stars or runaways on the streets of Seattle. Her focus is not just the fringes, but on reality, whatever that looks like. There is no sugar-coating, no enhancing done with post-processing. Her photographs are simply what she sees. This has made it difficult for her in recent years. She considers herself more of a teacher these days than anything else. Magazines no longer have a need for the type of shooting she does. They are looking for images that she calls “photo-illustrations”, images that have been processed so much in Photoshop that they look nothing like how they started in the camera. She teaches her students to get the image they want in camera, saying, “What matters to me is that they don’t then alter [their photos]. It’s one thing altering it in the darkroom, making a good print, or using Photoshop like a darkroom. That’s OK. But when they start changing images and overdramatizing it, making a stupid image overdramatized because it’s Photoshopped, I just can’t stand looking at that.”

She had not put her camera away completely, however. From 2006 to 2009 she and her husband took on a rather involved personal project which has just been published by the Getty Museum. They traveled around the country with a Polaroid 20×24 Land camera (one of only five in existence) taking portraits of high school couples attending their senior prom. This was not the first time she had used this camera (having used it for a previous personal project called Twins), but she decided it was the perfect tool for this series because, as she says, it’s “about detail. It’s about looking at things very closely. It’s about having a huge microscope and looking and looking.” While she took the photographs, her husband filmed interviews of each of the couples, asking questions about their dates, their high school experiences, and to speculate on their futures. The expressions on their faces show a multitude of emotions; their anticipation of the night, their fear and expectation of what the future holds, and feeling just a bit more like adults. She purposely had the couples not smile saying, “If someone is just smiling for the camera, its kind of a fake smile and it always looks that way. So if someone bursts out laughing and it’s a real smile then it’s fine. But I never say ‘smile’.” Without the smiles you get the feeling that these kids are on the edge of something, that things are changing for them, and quickly. It is a fascinating look at one of the most important rites of passage of American youth.

In her long career, Mary Ellen Mark has contributed to magazines such as Life, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. She has published eighteen books and won dozens of awards, grants and fellowships (Fulbright, Guggenheim, Robert F. Kennedy). There are also the multitudes of exhibits across the world of her work in galleries like the Corcoran in Washington, DC, the Whitney in New York City, and the National Portrait Gallery in London. She is known as one of today’s most respected and influential photographers. Many consider her to be a fine-art photographer, but what she calls herself is a documentary photographer. She photographs life, with all of its warts and blemishes. Her images show us that being human is something worth celebrating, that no matter who we are, we are worthy of a portrait. She puts our flaws out there for all of us to see and wants us to remember that “the common threads of humanity exist in all of us – love, hate, humor, tragedy, sadness, envy, greed. The important thing is to see the humanity in everybody.”

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Recommended Reading

Mary Ellen Mark (Phaidon 55’s)
Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81
Mary Ellen Mark: An American Odyssey 1963-1999 (Aperture Monograph)

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