Directors Notes

Mary Ellen Mark's vision gives the world an opportunity to see and experience human landscape that is drawn from her perception of what makes life unique. Her photographs are graphic documents of things felt and seen that might otherwise escape our attention, and they reveal a special use of photography to abstract from nature the essence of whatever subject stands before her lens. In using her camera as a social research tool, Mark has opened our eyes to all those aspects of humanity that live on the edge of society. We are grateful to Mark for her elegant and penetrating presentation of a more complete view of the world.

We wish to express special appreciation to the Professional Photography Division of the Eastman Kodak Company, whose generous support of this project has made it possible to present the exhibition and publication in a manner of the highest quality. Further, their insight in providing funding for the project that allowed Mark to produce new work in India is worthy of specific mention.

We also wish to acknowledge and express gratitude to Marianne Fulton, Senior Curator of the Museum, who organized the exhibition and wrote this book. She has given us a more complete understanding of Mary Ellen Mark's life and her contributions as an artist.

The exhibition that this book accompanies will tour the world for several years, and it is our hope that it will expand the audience for Mary Ellen Mark and increase appreciation for her work.

James L. Enyeart

International Museum
of Photography at
George Eastman House


I will be forever grateful to Raymond H. DeMoulin of the Professional Photography Division of the Eastman Kodak Company and to Marianne Fulton of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House for allowing me to realize a twenty-year dream of photographing the Indian Circus. I want to thank Peter Howe of LIFE magazine and Leo Castelli and Patty Caporaso of Castelli Graphics for their support of this project. Also, I wish to express my deepest appreciation to Marianne Fulton, Teri Barbero, and Martin Bell for their special friendship and encouragement of all my work.

The circus photographs could not have been taken in India without the superb assistance of Dayanita Singh, Farrokh Chothia, Cherry Kim, and David Liittschwager. I want to thank Sarah Jenkins for her silver prints for this book, and the Eastman House exhibition, and Sal Lopes for his platinum prints for the Castelli Graphics show, Bob Hennessey for his halftone photography for the book, and Jim Stockton for his design of the book; their work is exceptionally beautiful. I thank Ernst Wildi for his technical advice about the Hasselblad equipment used to photograph the circus project, and, of course, I want to offer special love and thanks to the wonderful people I met in the Indian circuses. The owners and the many talented artists made me feel totally welcome and gave me a great deal of their time. I think quite often about my incredible experience with the Indian circuses–the Great Amar Circus, the Great Apollo Circus, the Great Bharat Circus, the Great Bombay Circus, the Great Empire Circus, the Great Famous Circus, the Great Gemini Circus, the Great Golden Circus, the Great Jumbo Circus, the Great Lion Circus, the Great National Circus, the Great Oriental Circus, the Great Raj Kamal Circus, the Great Rayman Circus, and the Great Royal Circus–and I miss them very much.

This book represents some of the strongest images I have taken over the past twenty-five years. They could not exist without the people I photographed having let me enter their lives. There is no way I can ever repay them for what they have given me.

Mary Ellen Mark
January 7, 1991
New York City

Introduction to Essay

This project has been a truly collaborative effort: Mary Ellen Mark and I spent days discussing photography; looking at, choosing, comparing, substituting photographs--and discussing photography once again. She and her husband, Martin Bell, opened their files and their home to me. Martin shared, in equal measure, Mary Ellen's critical eye and capacity for overwork. His dry humor provided just the right amount of leavening.

Sincere thanks go to Raymond H. DeMoulin, general manager of the Professional Photography Division and vice president of Eastman Kodak Company. Enthusiastic from the time he first heard about the exhibition, Ray not only encouraged both show and book but also made it possible for Mary Ellen to spend six months in India photographing the Indian circuses. Three editions of the exhibition will travel around the world. Thus, the scope of the project has been expanded and enhanced by Ray's concern and Kodak's support.

Teri Barbero of the Mary Ellen Mark Library and Jeanne Verhulst of this Museum provided the main assistance in assembling information and images for the book and exhibition. Sarah Jenkins printed all of the photographs.

Crucial to my understanding of the photographer, her photographs, and the publishing world were interviews with photographers Ralph Gibson, Greg Heisler, and Aaron Siskind; Prudence Heisler, story researcher; Peter Howe, photo editor at LIFE; and Kathy Ryan, photo editor of The New York Times Magazine. I thank them for the time they so generously shared.

This book and the traveling exhibitions it accompanies would not have been possible without the work of many individuals at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House. Special thanks goes to James L. Enyeart, director, for his questions and good advice. My appreciation also goes to Barbara Galasso and Marian Early, Darkroom; Mark Boran, Mike Easley, and Carolyn Zaft, Exhibitions; Rachel Stuhlman, Becky Simmons, and Barbara Schaefer, Library; Patricia Musolf, Marketing; Eliza Benington, Publicity; Ann McCabe and James A. Conlin, Registration; and Martha Rock Birnbaum, formerly of Volunteer Services.

I particularly appreciate the opportunity to work on another publication with editor Terry Reece Hackford of Bulfinch Press and designer Jim Stockton.

But most of all, my thanks go to Mary Ellen.

Marianne Fulton

Rochester, New York


This is a story about a woman possessed--possessed of great talent, conviction, strength, and a certainty of her role. She is a person obsessed with photography; it is at the center of her life, of who she is. Photography defines her, because through her photography, she seeks to define what it means to be human.

Mary Ellen Mark is a photographer who believes that her strongest essay will be her next one. In a sense, all her work is one journey to that "best" story, which she may never reach or let herself acknowledge. She works with an edge, a haunting dissatisfaction: Could the pictures be better? What is important? Does she have it? Has she gotten to the core? Modest by nature, she uses the word perhaps a lot and the phrase "I was lucky" a great deal. But the success of her career is the result of more than luck-–rather, it's a knowing rush toward the unknown.

The keynote of Mary Ellen Mark's work has always been people. Literally from the moment she picked up a camera in her first photography course, no other theme has drawn her away from her primary concern. From heroin addicts in the 1960s to circus performers in the 1990s, people remain the center of her engagement with photography. A desire to get close, discover, understand, and reveal the complex and rich variations in individual lives makes all of Mark's photographs very personal. Her images thought of in this way, the boundaries between stories begin to break down, and one sees a continuing story in her work.

Her earlier work includes "Teresa of the Slums," an essay on Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, and "Streets of the Lost," better known as Streetwise, the title of a movie made by Mark and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell. An expanded version of the former was released in book form as Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta. Other books includeWard 81and Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay.

Over the years Mark has become increasingly interested in the single image, as opposed to the photographic essay. This explains and, in part, grows out of her admiration for photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, all of whose great stories contain photographs that, when seen independently, sum up the entire story. Ideally, she feels each picture-–whether part of an essay or not-–ought to stand on its own, to tell the whole story. Taken together, her single pictures of different stories are interrelated and show a core of concern that runs throughout her work.

This book and the exhibition it accompanies bring forward some of Mark's most powerful pictures for consideration. No longer part of an original, encompassing article, each individual image has become part of a broader context. There are drawbacks to this presentation, however. Each original story works well as a unit. For instance, "Children of Desire," a story on teenage pregnancy for The New York Time Magazine, is, in its entirety, a poignant, lyrical look at adolescents falling in and out of love, having babies, and facing a difficult world alone. The selection from this story shown here represents only one aspect among many of a teenager's world-–a world created as much by poverty and circumstance as by choice. Although the original narrative of each story is no longer evident, the embedded logic and the consistency among essays still emerges.

For a photographer who considers growth and change a vital part of her life, books and exhibitions that only look back on previous work are a contradiction. This book, therefore, adds to Mark's images from her previous books and magazine articles her newest work, "The Indian Circus." This story affirms and elaborates on earlier themes concerning people on the fringes of society. Once again, India was her vehicle for exploring both the noble and the quixotic in the human spirit.

Finally, this book encompasses a selection of the best of Mark's black-and-white work. She believes herself to be a better photographer when shooting in black and white, and says that this work means more to her than does her work in color. This may be another way of saying that, although she prefers to accept jobs that allow her to explore her primary interests, as a professional photographer she is not always able to dictate the subject or the photographic process.

Sometimes, however, she does choose to work in color, apart from the demands of an assignment. The intensity of the emotion and meaning in her book Falkland Road would have been diminished without the inclusion of color as pungent as the subject itself. Because self-decoration and display are a primary part of the world of young prostitutes and transvestites in Bombay, color tells the story more emphatically.

Observes Mark: "The difficulty with color is to go beyond the fact that it's color-–to have it be not just a colorful picture but really be a picture about something. It's difficult. So often color gets caught up in color, and it becomes merely decorative. Some photographers use [it] brilliantly to make visual statements combining color and content; otherwise it is empty."

Black-and-white photography can be more abstract and metaphoric than color; it can create synthesis, as opposed to dissonance. For Mark, faces and gestures remain the central focus despite the potential distractions of yellow-and-green curtains or red cars. Black-and-white photography-–as practiced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Marion Post Wolcott, and W. Eugene Smith-–represents the tradition that has inspired Mary Ellen Mark, a tradition that uses the concept of document as its primary aesthetic. Though inspired by this earlier work, she brings a passion to photography that is uniquely her own.

Mark embraced photography suddenly and completely in 1962, during graduate studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She had studied painting and art history for her bachelor's degree from the same university. After graduating, she worked at drafting for a city planner and found she hated it. Deciding to return to school, Mark looked into the Annenberg program. She received a scholarship, and from among concentrations such as creative writing and filmmaking arbitrarily chose photography. That choice determined her career.

"From the very first night, that was it...It was weird. I became obsessed by it. I knew immediately it would be my life's work. I knew I had a chance of being good,"she has said. The next day she went out alone on the street to experiment with one of the small cameras each class member had been given to use. Her initial experience of feeling that through photography she now had contact with people, combined with the belief that she could be good at it, changed her life.

Mark had painted and drawn all through her high-school years in Philadelphia in the late fifties and again in college, but she characterizes painting as a lonely, isolating vocation. She adds that she wasn't "passionate or involved enough in the idea of being a painter." Photography, however, engaged her emotions, intellect, and will to succeed in a way painting never had. This total immersion remains a hallmark of her working method.

Like many college students, she saw her first efforts appear in the school yearbook and the alumni magazine. The latter, entitled The Pennsylvania Gazette, published in one issue in 1964 two extended stories showing old-timers and school celebrations.

Mark applied for and after graduation in 1965 received a Fulbright scholarship to photograph in Turkey. The government-sponsored educational and cultural program named after Senator J. William Fulbright had been established in 1946 to promote understanding between the United States and other nations. Because of this, knowledge of the language of the country involved in the project was generally required of the applicant. Mark had visited Greece, and wanted to return to that part of the world. She shrewdly guessed that, since Turkish was not widely taught, she would not need to know it in order to be accepted. She was right. Two years of travel followed in Turkey, Greece, Sardinia, Crete, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, England, and Mexico; this was her first extended journey.

The resulting photographs garnered her recognition and gave her a solid portfolio with which to begin her chosen life as a professional photographer when she returned to New York. Some of the work later appeared in her first book, Passport, which was published by Lustrum Press in 1974.

Passport cuts across the cultures of Asia, Europe, and America, beginning with images of Turkish immigrants in Istanbul and ending with a series on the Women's Army Corps training in Alabama. The pictures crowd the pages and vie for the viewer's attention, but even so, the individual images are arresting, conveying a range of emotion. Typical of Mark's early work are her perceptive and provocative photographs of children.

In "Street Child, Trabzon, Turkey", a young girl with a bow in her hair, a wrinkled dress, and dirty, cheap shoes strikes a coquettish, knowing pose. She stands in front of a section of white wall, which thrusts her toward the viewer and camera while isolating her from the dingy surroundings. Her hand on her thigh, she throws one hip out with an aggressive sexuality identified with pinups and B-movie femmes fatales.

In another photograph, "English Child, London, England", a girl recedes into black foliage, her hands across her waist and chest in a shy, protective gesture. Her deep-set eyes are obscured by shadow. Similar in age to the Turkish child, she is depicted as having a wholly different attitude toward the world.

Her Fulbright project ended, Mark returned to New York in 1966. No longer a student and without the support of a grant, she had to make it on her own. She began to read through many different newspapers, looking, as she still does, for something that attracted her or, as she says, caught her mind.

She carried a camera with her everywhere, shooting anything that interested her–-and many things interested her. She built up series of photographs on Central Park, demonstrations, the early days of the women's movement, an old burlesque comedian, and a marriage broker on Forty-second street.

Though Mark still generates many of her own stories by choice, at the beginning of her career this was the only way to proceed. She was young, new in the field, and unknown, so getting an assignment was practically impossible. By going to an editor with pictures in hand, she eliminated the risk for the magazine. She did not ask publishers to invest money without knowing what the results would be. Instead, if they liked her idea, they could buy rights and assign a writer.

Her first assignment was for Jubilee, a Catholic magazine that published documentary work in the 1960s. In addition, she investigated two ideas for stories-–about body builders and the Psychedelic Burlesque-–after discovering items about them in the newspapers. The latter turned out to be a seedy strip show using loud music and projected imagery. Mark took her photographs and then approached the magazines. The first group of pictures appeared in New York magazine in 1967, and the second in an issue of Evergreen in 1968.

In 1967 Mark approached Mort Engelberg at United Artists about a job shooting movie production stills, and she was accepted that year as the special still photographer for Alice's Resaurant. She looked on shooting stills as a combination of portraiture and reportage having the considerable advantage of much better pay than regular magazine work.

Mark points out that the approach to shooting stills has changed. When she began to work on films "there was a whole different attitude toward photography and relationships with celebrities. You could really take much more personal photographs. Now they all seem to be so controlled by this glitzy formula of the so-called celebrity portrait. You don't get the kind of access now that you did twenty years ago, when I started."

In the late 1960s, however, it soon became obvious to Mark that the production stills, besides paying the bills, were a brilliant entrée into the world of magazines. Some of her earliest big articles were, in fact, made up of photographs from the movies. For example, her first cover for The New York Times Magazine was from The Day of the Locust (1975). Thirteen stills from the film were reproduced in the issue. The next year in London, The Sunday Times Magazine featured "The Day of the Extra," an article about the same film. This was the first time her work-–twenty-three interior photographs in addition to the cover–-was carried by The Times.

Her extensive work with film stills over the past twenty years includes dozens of movies, among them Apocalypse Now, The Missouri Breaks, Ragtime, Silkwood, and Tristana. These jobs introduced her work to magazines and, more importantly, led directly to offers of assignments.

Mary Ellen Mark's first big break came, she believes, when in 1969 Look editor Pat Carbine accepted her suggestion that she do a story on Federico Fellini making Fellini Satyricon. While Mark was in Rome a member of an English television crew told her of a controversial new law in England allowing clinics to dispense heroin to registered addicts. Mark immediately called writer Mary Simons at Look. Together, they went to the editors of Look, who approved the story. Mark finished the piece on Fellini, shot another in France on filmmaker François Truffaut, and then went to London. Published the next year, her photographs for "What the English are Doing About Heroin" (1970) were remarkable-–not at all the tentative results of a novice, but a close look at drug users shooting up.

The year 1970 was especially productive for this young photographer, who was just three years into her professional career. She made stills for such films as Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22, and Tropic of Cancer. Her first stories appeared in Look and LIFE, and she was included in Great Themes, one of the Time-Life series of photographic books. It was just the beginning, and she was not complacent.

A look back finds that Mark's attitude then was no different from what it is today: "You never think that things are
going well. I think you always feel that you are only as good as the next thing you do. I've never felt that I'm successful, or that I've made it. I just don't. It's always a battle. I think I've learned over the years, more and more, that you have to be very disciplined about yourself, your work, and what you want...At that time [1970] I was just starting to get some work, and I was excited. I thought it was great, but I didn't feel that by any means I had arrived."

Because she always has a clear idea of what she wants and of which stories are best for her, Mark is prepared to seize an opportunity when it presents itself. In 1971 she was working on the film Taking Off when she heard that the director, Milos Forman, was about to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at a mental institution in Oregon. She liked Forman and wanted to work on this film. She remembers: "I heard he was making Cuckoo's Nest, and they didn't have any budget to afford a special still photographer at that time (little did they know it was going to be a huge success), so I convinced the producer to let me work just for expenses...I had always wanted to photograph in a mental hospital. I've just always been interested in mental health, mental illness...I thought this was a chance for me to meet people and for me to get access into the hospital. And, in fact, it was."

Once in Oregon, in addition to photographing the actors, she met the director of the hospital, who took her on a tour of the facility, which included a woman's maximum security unit. Ward 81 was kept locked because the inmates were considered dangerous to themselves and to others. On seeing the women in this closed environment, Mark resolved to return with her camera.

She kept in contact with the director during the next year, calling him several times to elaborate on her proposal to photograph in the hospital. She urged him to let her return with a writer and live in the security ward. Eventually he consented. Beginning in February 1976 she and Karen Folger Jacobs spent thirty-six days in Ward 81 interviewing and photographing the women.

Recognizing an opportunity to come in contact with and respond to mental illness, Mark had reacted decisively: she traveled to Oregon and worked on Forman's movie essentially for free. The existence of Ward 81 proved the risk had been worthwhile. Having made the decision and seen the patients, Mark made the project happen through persistent diplomacy and force of will.

Great photographers know what their subjects are. In other words, they know what moves them deeply, what continues to concern them. For some, it is a certain kind of landscape or a formal design, for others, a point of view rather than a specific topic. Some need to understand the politics of a given situation; some will use their images to comment explicitly on that situation. For all, photography is an ongoing conversation with the world and with themselves.

For Mark, both the questions she has about the world and the statements she needs to make have to do with people. Her great gift is that she has understood this from the beginning of her work with the medium. Once published, the photographs speak to the context of particular issues, such as addiction, poverty, and mental health. The best illuminate their topic; many provoke verbal, written, or photographic responses. And the conversation goes on.

At some point this instinct for what is important converts to commitment. Just as a writer is said to find her "voice," a photographer recognizes her particular way of seeing: form and content merge. For Mary Ellen Mark this happened early in her career.

Mark says that when photographing she wants to reach and touch "something that I feel is at the core of people.
[Because the mentally ill are very open] we are able to see something in them and in ourselves. I think they tell us about inhibitions and all those things that we hide so much."

About Ward 81, she has further observed: "The women had very strong personalities. Some of them were funny, some romantic, some social. You could label them just the way you might label your friends-–this is the comedian...this is the social one...The difference was that the feelings were so much more exaggerated. There's no bullshit-–the emotions are pure."

The line between the life of a mental patient and that of a "normal" person is very thin, Mark feels. She wanted to reveal the closeness by showing recognizable women, their emotions, and the relationships among them. No polite conventions were recognized or observed on Ward 81, and the women displayed the full force of their personalities. By observing the extremes, Mark came to recognize more fully the masks that society employs: "I wanted to capture the different aspects and ranges of these personalities. I didn't want to get their case histories. I didn't want to be forced to put people in pigeonholes, saying 'Aha! This one is a schizophrenic'...It was a project of my own, and I just wanted to do photographs that I believed in without having any rhyme or reason or theory, or having to spell out a sort of storytelling. I wanted to show their personalities-–that was the thing that drew me to them."

In her first sustained personal project, then, Mark did not want to produce the traditional magazine story with a
beginning, a middle, and an end. She was not interested in fulfilling any of the didactic requirements-–the telling of who, what, where, why, or how-–of reportage. Instead, her desire was to get close to these women, to understand them as well as she could, and to give visual expression to the connection she felt. She wanted to make strong pictures displaying clear emotions, pictures that did not need lengthy explanatory captions.

Robert Hughes, the art critic at Time magazine, was moved to write that Ward 81 was "a lamentation: one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film."
Ward 81 is central to Mark's work. In it surface all the themes seen in her later photographs. The women were not celebrities; they were "unfamous," to use Mark's phrase. They let their stories be told rather than affecting a pose. They were not newsworthy; they did nothing extraordinary; they persevered. They had had a bad break; for whatever reason, they were ill. And they were not free. In other situations poverty may restrict a person's choices; here, the women were literally confined.

Above all, Mark uses metaphor. In Ward 81, as in all of her work, she looked for the universal in the particular, endeavoring to understand something basic about being human in the lives of those on the fringes of society.

Concerning the recurring ideas in her work, Mark says: "I think that we are who we are. There are various themes about our lives that are part of our work, and they repeat themselves. I don't think you do a project and the feelings are finished. They resurface in another form; you reexamine them." It is interesting to note that Mark places the "themes" in the context of her life; her work makes these life themes visible. In many cases, then, she is not merely fulfilling an assignment for a magazine but exploring a subject embedded in her life.

Two personal experiences illuminate her fascination with mental illness. Her third-grade class made several trips: to a museum, to a dairy farm, and, finally, to a local mental hospital. This first exposure made a sudden and deep impression on her. The impact of the other encounter lingered much longer: Mark's father was often ill when she was growing up, and he suffered several nervous breakdowns, for which he was hospitalized.

Living in Ward 81 confirmed Mark's belief that she wanted exclusively to photograph people and their environments. The experience was valuable in that she "discovered what access is, how far you can go, when you can go, when you can't go-–all those sorts of signals. I learned a lot from that because I stayed for a long time and it changed the way I work. It made me realize that I like to work where I stay in one place for a long time...the longer I stay, the closer I can get."

In order to continue working on long-term projects and still make a living, Mark needed to find a way to market her work and skills while she was busy photographing. So in 1977 Mark became a member of Magnum Photos, Inc. She had looked forward to being in this agency, which had been founded, in part, by Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs she much admired. Magnum was not the first agency with which she was associated. From 1968 until 1971 she had been with Woodfin Camp, and from 1971 until 1976, with Lee Gross, who worked primarily in the movies.

Agencies such as Magnum play an important role in the photographic publishing marketplace. Each has its own way of working and governing itself, but essentially most are set up to generate photographs and sell them to the publishers of magazines, books, and newspapers. Profits are split on a percentage basis with the photographer. As the economics of magazine publishing forced periodicals to drastically cut back their photographic staffs in the 1960s, agencies increasingly filled the gap.

The staff of an agency can act for the photographer by calling magazines and selling them an idea for a story. Gaining an assignment for the photographer, the agency acts as intermediary, making sure the photographer gets paid. If the photographer is working on a self-generated project or is on a long-term assignment such as a book contract, the agency will attempt to place those pictures in magazines worldwide in order to defray expenses and develop additional income for the photographer. Once an assignment has been completed, the photographs become part of the picture library of the agency and are available for resale, thus generating income long afterward.

Magnum is a cooperative; each member has a voice in the decisions and direction of the agency. Photographers also contribute forty percent of their earnings toward maintaining the staff, offices, and library. Over the five years of her membership in this complex organization, Mark came to feel that she would be better off on her own, generating her own work.

She left Magnum in 1981 with four other members (Mark Godfrey, Charles Harbutt, Abigail Heyman, and Joan Liftin) and set up Archive Pictures, which functioned solely as a library for secondary sales of photographs. At the same time, Mark realized that in order to continue successfully with her movie work, she needed an agent who knew that particular segment of the market and could negotiate successfully. She started working with Marysa Maslansky at Visages; Maslansky arranges both publicity and advertising work on films.

Archive lasted until late 1988, when the photographers decided to disband and go their own ways. Some went to other agencies, and Mark came to see that it was time to try working on her own.

In 1988 she formed her own picture agency-–the Mary Ellen Mark Library–-with Teri Barbero. Barbero, who had also been in Archive, became director of the library. In this capacity, she began digitally recording Mark’s photographs through a custom-developed computer system, which made Mark’s twenty-five years of work instantly available. Mark had long employed a studio manager to set up appointments and in general make sure that she had everything she needed.

Mark has used several black-and-white printers. She prefers to work with someone whose printing she admires and in whom she has complete confidence. She gave up doing any darkroom work herself early on because, like many magazine photographers, she realized that time spent in the darkroom is time taken away from photographing.

Mark concerns herself primarily with the original idea and the moment of realizing it on film. She does not want or expect the image on the negative to be modified in the printing. She does expect it to be beautifully printed and to reflect the tonal range present in the negative, as a bad print can ruin the impact of a photograph, she feels: “A good print is really essential. I want to take strong documentary photographs that are as good technically as any of the best technical photographs, and as creative as any of the best fine-art photographs. That’s what I want. And certainly a good print is part of it. [This is doubly important because] I don’t want to just be a photo essayist; I’m more interested in single images...ones that I feel are good enough to stand on their own.”

Mark’s orientation to photography is different from that of a photographer assembling a portfolio of highly personal images for an eventual gallery show and sale. Although she does try to choose assignments in which she has a special interest, the photographs have another function: “I’m trying to please myself; certainly that’s a big criterion...though in a sense, I don’t take images just for myself. I take images that I think other people will want to see. I don’t take pictures to put in a box and hide them. I want as many people to see them as possible.”

Mark trusts her instincts about what works in reportage. Occasionally, she finds an assignment quickly, but usually it takes years before the story is photographed and published. And although optimistic about the chances of publishing a good story, she often finds that wedding a story with a publisher can be a demanding process: “You can always find stories to do...It [a good story] will always find its way into being published. Maybe it won’t be published this year, but maybe next year. If you do a great story, there’s always a magazine that will publish it...It’s a very fickle and changeable business. It’s never that easy.”
Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay exemplifies her persistence in resolving these problems. Two circumstances stood in the way of this story on the “caged” prostitutes of Bombay; either could have killed it. Mark lacked both financial backing from a publication and access to the women. Ten years elapsed between the initial idea and its fruition.

Full of prostitutes, pimps, transvestites, and the places they work, Falkland Road is famous for its brothels, which display the women in rooms open to view but separated from the street by iron bars. Though they seem quite available, the only real access to them is through the door and past the madam.

Having first seen the women beckoning to potential customers in 1968, Mark returned to Falkland Road on all her subsequent trips to India. Each time she tried to photograph there, she was verbally abused and pelted with garbage. In October 1978 she decided to make a concentrated effort. Every day she went to Falkland Road and endured both the garbage and insults. In the introduction to her book she wrote: “Every day I had to brace myself, as though I were about to jump into freezing water. But once I was there, pacing up and down the street, I was overwhelmed, caught up in the high energy and emotion of the quarter. And as the days passed and people saw my persistence, they began to get curious. Some of the women thought I was crazy, but a few were surprised by my interest in and acceptance of them. And slowly, very slowly, I began to make friends.”

Mark first was befriended by street prostitutes and transvestites, who are at the bottom of the social scale there. Gradually, she was allowed into the caged houses, and she made photographs there until January 1979. The resulting photographs have nothing in common with the stereotype of the prostitute. Instead, they represent young women, their children, and their customers with great compassion. Her color images were published in Stern and other magazines.

Working in color with a strobe, Mark was hardly unnoticeable, but she was eventually accepted and allowed to stay. She has no formula for getting people to trust her: “I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul, and I think you have to be clear about that.”

Others have commented on Mark’s ability to work with people no matter what the situation. Story researcher Prudence Heisler, who traveled with her into American ghettos, says: “She has such an incredibly hypnotic way of working with people that she really captures their attention...I think it’s because she’s so intent on what she’s doing that, for that moment, nothing else exists for her except taking that photograph. It’s such an overwhelming kind of commitment...I think people get spellbound. She’s also a very direct and honest person...

“Mary Ellen goes straight to the point. She talks instantly about their drug problem, their addiction, their pregnancy, their unemployment, their criminal background. She goes straight to the point, and it’s not garbage with her; I think people feel relieved to be with someone who is authentic and direct.

“I think she makes those people feel very special. She kind of gives them the attention that many are desperate for--she is very gentle with people.”

Another story on India–”Teresa of the Slums: A Saintly Nun Embraces India’s Poor”–was published in LIFE in July 1980. Mark’s long-awaited opportunity to photograph at the Missions of Charity came about as a result of Mother Teresa’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 1979. Because of the crisis in Afghanistan, no writer was available to report on the missions while the photographer was there. This circumstance allowed Mark the freedom to structure her work as she wished and to shoot single images rather than within a narrative structure.

Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity comprise much more than the well-publicized Home for the Dying in Calcutta. There are 158 houses, half of them in India and the rest in 32 other countries. In the area of Calcutta itself the other missions, where Mark also worked, include the “Nirmala Kennedy Center, a home for retarded and homeless women; Shanti Naga [Peace] Village, a leprosy colony four hours by train outside the city; Shishu Bhawan, a home, adoption center, and hospital for abandoned and malnourished children; and Prem Dan [Gift of Love], a large complex with facilities for caring for recovering tuberculosis patients, homeless women, and retarded young boys.”

Mark did most of her shooting at the Nirmal Hriday (Home for the Dying). This hospice is on the grounds of a temple dedicated to Kali, a Hindu goddess of death, destruction, and purity. Thus, the location symbolizes the intertwining of East and West.

Having completed the assignment for LIFE after nearly a month, Mark decided she needed to return to India and pursue her own work in greater depth. However, it wasn’t until January 1981, a year later, that she returned. Access to Mother Teresa during the first trip had been very restricted, and Mark continued to have problems in 1981. She talked over the situation with a Jesuit priest, who suggested that she attend church services. As his sermon began, she was astonished to hear him speaking about the importance of photography. Things improved thereafter to the point where Mother Teresa included Mark on her trips to outlying hospitals.

Photographs about dying, leprosy, and blindness can be difficult to look at, yet the love of the nuns and volunteers is evident throughout Mark’s images–in a hand caressing the head of a patient, a nun touching an old woman. Other photographs allude to the gentle nature of the houses by describing the surroundings. For example, one photograph of the Shanti Nagar leprosy colony shows a flock of white geese passing between buildings in front of a sister in her pristine habit. Three small floppy-eared goats are also passing and the mottled sunlight silhouettes another person’s shadow on a white wall. An image of calmness and purity, it emphasizes the orderliness and beauty of the commonplace.

Pictures made during Mark’s second stay in Calcutta rounded out the work she had done for LIFE the year before. In 1981 the story seemed finished–-at least for the time being.

Recognizing that a story is complete can be difficult. If the assignment has a definite deadline, a professional must adjust accordingly. This assignment was not fulfilled to Mark’s personal satisfaction in the time allotted, so she went back. Nevertheless, she delivered to LIFE a solid piece that satisfied the requirements of the magazine.

Mark says that sometimes she regrets having left a documentary project too soon. On the other hand, the urge to go on and on can also be a problem: “You have to finally say ‘well, that’s it’...I try to make a schedule for myself on a long project as well as [on a] shorter essay: how long I think it will take me and what I need to do to complete it. So I’m pretty organized about that.”

The need to return to Calcutta and to Falkland Road exemplifies what Mark and her colleagues characterize as her obsession with photography. In one interview she stated succinctly that the relentless drive to make photographs was stronger than she was.

Mark’s friend the photographer Greg Heisler affectionately characterizes her total immersion in her work in his own dramatic way: “More than anyone else I know in the business, [she] is literally obsessed with her work, obsessed with photography, obsessed with the pursuit of her vision, and obsessed with the disparity between what she wants to do and what she ends up doing–-the disparity between the fantasy of the assignment and how it ends up turning out. Her obsession with how magazines should run pictures but don’t, her obsession with other photographers and how disappointing they can be. I mean she is obsessed with every aspect of photography. The only thing she is not obsessed with is equipment, which is kind of rare because lots of photographers are obsessed with hardware. She is obsessed with photography. She couldn’t care less if she were using an Instamatic Type 4. If, in fact, she found that to be really easy to work with, and it seemed to give her quality [she wanted], that would be fine.”

Though her constant quest for excellence makes her continually stand back and appraise her work, when she is actually photographing she exudes a powerful sense of both complete absorption and calm. Focusing entirely on the subject at hand, she is not easily distracted. At one point she compared her need to photograph to drug addiction; in another, more poetic, allusion she described Suman, an acrobat in an Indian circus who “walks upside down eighty feet up in the air...by slipping her feet through successive hoops and uses no net. I thought, she really is an adrenaline addict. I mean, she does this three times a day, everyday, and she could die. But she doesn’t think she has to do it. My photography isn’t dangerous like that, but I guess I just do it because I have to. It’s hard to say why. I like to be in a situation where I can define some sort of absolute feeling.” In looking for that moment of “absolute feeling,” her concentration is complete.

Prudence Heisler comments: “She has found a place to be...There is absolutely no question about what she has to do and what kind of pictures she has to take. She has a tremendous kind of power in that obsession because it is, in some ways, a very tranquil place to be because there is no question.”

In order to find a story Mark reads through several newspapers a day. At times she has hired a researcher to help her look. Generally, her problem is not in finding material but in convincing a newspaper or magazine to let her follow through. She always has many more ideas than outlets. Using the telephone frequently in this search for potential publishers, she often also writes proposals, which she sends along with a photocopy of the original newspaper item. She may submit a particular proposal to magazines in more than one country, but never to more than one in each country. If the idea is rejected, she then approaches another magazine in that country.

Producing a story is very costly: travel, accommodations, food, film, car rental, film processing, printing, and the services of an assistant all add up. The longer a project takes, the more it costs. Often, even if a magazine is interested in a story, it may not be able to bear all the expense. One possible way to finance a story is to work simultaneously for more than one magazine-–an American, an English, and a German publication, for example-–so that the expenses are all shared, each magazine gets more for less, and three articles are published in different countries.

When such an arrangement allows Mark to pursue a theme that means a great deal to her, she views the assignment as a grant to do her personal work. Her preference for working in black and white narrows the field considerably, so she is doubly grateful for the opportunity to work. In addition to suggesting topics, Mark does, of course, get calls directly from many different publications.

Photo editor Kathy Ryan calls with jobs based on stories being covered in The New York Times Magazine. In choosing a photographer for a particular piece, Ryan considers photographers’ artistic strengths-–how they will approach a story, how they think, what issues move them-–that is, “another point of view...I think of it as almost recording a point of view from the photographer that’s beyond the visual point of view. Each story demands very, very different strengths.”

One of Mary Ellen Mark’s strong points, Ryan believes, is that “if she’s got several weeks to do a reportage, she’ll make incredible images. If she’s got twenty minutes to shoot a portrait of someone, for example, the kid on death row [Heath Wilkins in “Too Young to Die?”, where getting access is a major battle to begin with, and there is not going to be a luxury of time, she’ll still make incredible pictures.”

For the story of eighteen-year-old murderer Heath Wilkins (published in 1989), Mark was told that he would not be bound or handcuffed, and that she had only a few minutes for the portrait. Arriving early at the prison, Mark asked for a larger room than the one originally designated, in order to accommodate her lights. She set up for a close portrait to emphasize Wilkins’s youth. Apparently because the room being used was in a different location, the prisoner was transported in leg irons. There was no time to relight the portrait to show his shackled legs. Mark made a closeup and then, according to Kathy Ryan, told the warden “that the camera had malfunctioned and she had to come back the next day, because we knew we couldn’t get a second chance. Basically, through her sheer strength of personality, which is another element of all great photographers-–beyond the image-–always being able on the scene to make things work their way,” she demanded a second day, and she got it.

Peter Howe, picture editor of LIFE, comments: “When you give Mary Ellen an assignment, it’s like when you’ve uncorked the jar and a genie comes out. The minute you suggest a story to her, her mind immediately locks onto that story. She worries over whether this is right or that is right. [She’s] almost like a fighter in training when she’s started to think about a story. And when she is working on a story for you, that’s the only story in the world that is ever going to be printed. It’s the only story that exists. There are no other stories, no other magazines, and that’s the real plus about her. It’s complete and utter commitment to doing what she does.”

When at a site, Mark will call the photo editors regularly to let them know what is going on, to check details one more time, and to discuss the problems she is experiencing. She is often so frustrated while working that she may call and say: “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” or “I have no idea why I took this assignment.” Ryan remarks that “it is like opening-night angst while she is in the middle of a story, like: ‘Am I going to be brilliant or bomb?’...She’s living and breathing it every minute. I mean, when she’s on assignment nothing else matters-–nothing.”

In speaking of Mark, Howe concludes that “she’s not an egomaniac; she’s not a publicity seeker or any of those things. I think in many ways, in the true sense, she is one of the most dedicated people I have ever spoken to. [Photography] really, really is her life, it’s air and water. I mean, it’s everything that she needs to sustain herself, both intellectually and spiritually...Even for those of us to whom it’s incredibly important, there are not many for whom it’s that important.”

Because it is her life and because her work is made for the public arena, Mark is frustrated by current trends in magazine publishing: “In the day of Margaret Bourke-White photojournalists were supported by LIFE and by The Saturday Evening Post. Now, the only photographers magazines back are the personality photographers or the fashion people...But for documentary photographers, you don’t have that kind of backing. Except for [National] Geographic, you don’t really have the contract or staff position [as Bourke-White had] on a magazine that’s really behind you and that’s really going to stay with you and use you again and again. It’s strange, but the fashion people and the celebrity people do (like at Conde Nast).

“You have to constantly keep proving yourself and constantly keep suggesting stories. I think now, particularly, it’s very tough. People are always blaming picture editors and art directors, but it’s not their fault. The decisions come from ‘upstairs’ in magazines. A good art director and a good picture editor, they want great stories in their magazine-–they’re really for you. But they're not the people that reject your ideas. Your ideas get rejected by the business side of the magazine, the editorial and business [that is, the word and money] people. The magazines are money-making operations. Documentary photography is essential, but it doesn’t necessarily sell. Whereas with fashion, beauty, celebrities, they sell. I think because the economy is in such a bad state, magazines are much more careful now.”

The cost and subject matter of documentary stories intensify the cautious attitude of publishers. These are realistic concerns, and Mark realizes that “it costs a lot of money to do a photo essay because you’ve got to spend a lot of time doing it. So that’s one thing: The magazine has to consider whether they want to spend all this money. Also, it’s a risk-–it’s a story that might be hard to look at. It might offend someone; the advertisers might not like it. All those things go into consideration.”

Peter Howe says one of the biggest changes he has seen in American magazines is that, as their focuses have
become narrower, they have been forced to go out and do the stories they want, rather than remain open to the ideas of photographers. Hence, the publishing possibilities for photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark are drying up. Moreover, the narrower focus often goes hand in hand with greater use of artificial sets and formula photography.

In explaining why magazines in countries other than the United States, such as England and Germany, may be more liberal and more willing to take risks, Howe points out that the countries and, therefore, their markets are smaller: “The stakes are much bigger here; there’s a much bigger audience, and they are spending much more money...
Advertisers are going to be that much more cautious because they have that much more to lose. To a certain extent that translates into magazine publishing inasmuch as we [publishers] are all fighting for the advertising pages that go into supporting the magazines. And therefore, I think, there is a knockdown effect-–it is so important to get those ad pages because we’re talking about so much money...

“It seems to me that, within the area of photojournalism, particularly in magazines, we have very small victories and very big defeats...The reality is that particularly in magazines (I think the situation in newspapers to some extent is different), most editorial photography finds its way onto the pages as illustrations. There is very little that is finding its way to the pages from the beginning to the end of the story...Really, on the national level, there are two [magazines]: there’s us [LIFE] and the National Geographic doing complete stories. You know, Time and Newsweek and U.S. News do make their forays into that area, but there are not that many, not that many.”

Mark observes: “What’s more frustrating than magazines giving less and less space is that they tell you what they want. Not LIFE, but some magazines actually want you to be an illustrator, and I don’t want to be an illustrator–I don’t enjoy those assignments. You know, I want to have a chance to be a real part of the creative process and not just a technician who clicks the camera.”

Talking about the issue of steadily shrinking picture space within large national magazines, Kathy Ryan observes: “Magazines have changed; they’re designed in a new way, with shorter and quicker ‘hits.’ That’s a lot of it. Everything opens on a spread [two facing pages], at most four pages. Documentary photography, by definition, is about a narrative, where you want to have eight pages flow from start to finish. So I think most photographers have to pack a lot more into single images, because the reality is, in an American publication at least (and this is even true in LIFE), there will be at most maybe four or five images. It is hard to have an image just be a transitional one, and that’s a loss for all of us. Everyone has to be able to do the big picture where there is a lot going on.”

In the traditional picture story, transitional photographs play an important role. They sometimes show an overview of a scene, placing the subject in a larger context. They may move in and elaborate on details, such as how a subject spends her day or prepares for a performance. Without them, as Ryan points out, each picture in the group has to make up for the loss.

Space restrictions do hamper Mark’s work, even though she is not interested in producing the traditional story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her pictures set the tone as well as tell the story. Although she does not think it important to show how to do something or how a subject completes a given task, she does need to reveal the significance of an action or a way of life. Fewer reproductions in a magazine mean that the complexities of life which she finds so compelling have to be edited down to a handful of pictures. She chafes at making the complicated simplistic, stating that many “magazines want simple solutions–flashy pictures that are easy to look at and don’t pose any questions.”

Her best-known photo essay–”Streets of the Lost: Runaway Kids Eke Out a Mean Life in Seattle”–appeared in LIFE in July 1983. LIFE wanted a story dealing with the fact that more than a million children between the ages of eleven and seventeen run away from home each year. Seattle was chosen because it had been called one of the country’s most livable cities. Mark’s work on the LIFE article led to her return to Seattle in order to do an extended series of photographs and a documentary film, which her husband, Martin Bell, directed. In her introduction to the book Streetwise, which was published in 1988, she wrote, “If street kids exist in a city like Seattle, then they can be found everywhere in America, and we are therefore facing a major social problem of runaways in this country.” The LIFE story centers on a group of kids who hung out around a graffitied wall on Pike Street between First and Second. They had run away from home, had been kicked out, or had indifferent families. They lived their rough life the best way they could. Some were involved in selling drugs; more often, they sold themselves. They were very definitely streetwise.

The eighteen-picture spread shows teenagers panhandling, shooting up, fighting, rummaging for food in a garbage dumpster, and selling their own blood in order to survive. The two opening pictures define the territory. In a small photograph, an obviously young Laurie (age fourteen) leans against a wall, smokes a cigarette, and waits for customers. A large picture shows two friends, “Rat” and Mike. Rat, who at sixteen years of age looks more like eleven, stands slightly behind Mike, who reveals a Colt 45. The childlike faces, in conjunction with the accoutrements of an adult world, make for startling images.

Another photograph, not used in the LIFE article but later reproduced in the book, shows Lillie holding a hand-crocheted doll. The graffitied wall to her right reads, variously: “Mike,” “Rat,” and “Dope.” The wall recedes into the background at a right angle to the sidewalk; a lone figure, possibly male, is silhouetted in the distance. Lillie’s fingers grasp the stub of a cigarette in her mouth, making her look like a miniature Bogart looking for a fight. The tunnel effect created by the wall and sidewalk renders her small and separate from the world around her. The photograph is emblematic of the whole story: a child alone on the streets, too young to discard the reassuring doll, but knowing enough to take on the guise of toughness for survival. As one drug dealer put it: “Down here if you can’t hold on to what you’ve got, then you don’t deserve to have it.”

Mark was moved by what she found on Pike Street. The group had a loose cohesion and, individually, combined endurance with utter vulnerability. She returned to New York in May 1983, believing that their story would make a
viable documentary film. In July the story was published in LIFE, and Mark, her husband, Martin Bell, and writer Cheryl McCall had raised enough funds by August to travel to Seattle and make the film.

Erin Blackwell, or “Tiny,” was fourteen when the story was photographed for LIFE. She figures in the text of the article and in one photograph with her alcoholic mother. In the subsequent film Streetwise, she emerged as the dominant subject. As Mark said: “Even the other kids think she’s a star. She has that rare quality of being able to be totally honest and open about expressing her emotions on camera.”

During the shooting of the film Mark served as the liaison between the kids and filmmaker Bell, who was just getting to know them. She would think through ideas for the next day, considering whether Bell would be welcome and watching for conflict brewing among the kids.

Mark and Bell approach the photographing of subjects in a similar way: they work with short lenses and move in close. They have found that using longer (telephoto) lenses at the beginning of a project makes subjects feel that something is being surreptitiously recorded or stolen from them.

An incident involving Bell also insured their access. Mark explains: “We were filming in the Dismas Center, which is a facility open to kids for food, counseling, and recreation. Suddenly Chrissie, a sixteen-year-old street kid, became very angry with Martin for filming her. Martin, to everyone’s amazement, opened his camera magazine and gave her the exposed strip of film.” Chrissie left and threw out the film. Later, shewanted to be filmed.

Mark continues: “When Martin gave the exposed film to Chrissie he showed her and the other kids that we were not trying to steal something from them–if they wanted to be part of the film that was fine, but if they didn’t want to that was OK too. We knew that it was hard for these kids to trust anyone, but we hoped that they would learn to trust us a bit.”
Streetwise was released in 1984. It was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award.

Mark endeavors not to be emotional at parting and not to force her own judgments on her subjects, although in projects such as Streetwise a bond does develop over time. When she and Bell were leaving Seattle, Tiny asked if she could go with them. Mark seriously considered this and told Tiny what their conditions would be–she would have to attend school and stay home at night–and these restrictions led Tiny to change her mind.

Mark believes that if photographers become upset when leaving, the display causes undue pain to the subject. It may say to them that the photographer believes their situation is sad or hopeless. Mark knows she cannot change anyone’s life, and to try to do so would be unfair and might actually harm the subject.

Photographers who think that they can take over someone else’s life have the wrong attitude, Mark points out: “You have to let them live their lives, that’s their right. You can’t be a disciplinarian and force people into a life-style they don’t want. As terrible as you might feel their lives are–and maybe they are that terrible–it’s their lives. You have to respect it for what it is, I think. If the readers send them money because of the article, great. You can tell them that it may be stupid to go out and spend their money on drugs, or whatever, but it’s their money.”

During the filming of Streetwise, for example, Tiny remained on the streets, refusing legitimate job offers–even a film offer. Still having a hard time, she lives, with her three children, on welfare.

Mark recognizes that Tiny’s life is a tough one and feels a great responsibility for her. Mark has kept in contact with the young woman, visiting her in Seattle over the years. The photographer also receives collect calls when Tiny is in jail or in other trouble. About making provision, such as bail, for Tiny, Mark says: “I would never leave her in a position where she’s down and out...She’s a very special kid. She’s extremely candid, and she gave us a lot. She really opened up her life to us.”

The primary concern of Mark’s work has always been people such as Tiny, to whom she refers as the “unfamous.” Noncelebrities, unpretentious people who are generally out of the mainstream, the unfamous represent the successes and trials in everyone’s life. Their lives may be wildly different–from the nuns in the House for the Dying to the runaways–but they are often individuals who have endured against the odds. Kathy Ryan describes Mark as having “a great passion for the little people, the people who are not famous. I was very surprised when she told me once that she didn’t want to [cover an event for me] because she thought that some famous politicians would be [there]. She said that she didn’t like to cover those people; they made her feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, if I’ve got a story that involves someone, an unknown person, someone who has a much greater story...like the kid on death row...she is the person. She understands them as people, so much more than many other photographers. You know she’s going to bring back the heart of the story, not only the facts of it.”

Since Mark seeks to define feeling in her photographs, she avoids people who have a calculated public face. Looking for universals, she rejects manufactured posturing: “To touch on people’s lives [in a way they] haven’t been touched on before, it’s fascinating. You know, it’s one thing if [a celebrity] has an incredible character and you’re really going to be able to delve into their personality–that’s great. But you can never get real purity if people have been spoiled by the camera and don’t trust you. I like feeling that I’m able to be a voice for those people who aren’t famous, the people that don’t have the great opportunities.”

Being a vehicle for the communication of someone else’s story entails a responsibility to the subject, to the reading public, and to oneself. Mark sums up these three as “honesty.” And being honest means acknowledging that she has a personal point of view, that she cannot be invisible or uninvolved in the unfolding of events. She must be true to herself: “I think you have to have a real point of view that’s your own. You have to tell it your way. And, I think it’s a mistake to shoot for a specific magazine’s point of view because it’s never going to be as good. You have to shoot for yourself and photograph [the way] you believe it.”

She does not want to shoot other people’s photographs–either ones an editor expects to see or ones that have been made before. This struggle to interpret a subject in her own way further explains why Mark prefers to work on longer projects. The more deeply she immerses herself in a situation, the more likely it is she will become sensitive to the special attitudes and circumstances that differentiate one story from another. Telling details become apparent, and she can use them as visual metaphors.

Mark is careful to distinguish between a point of view that develops as she works and a superimposed photographic style that can subsume the subject in mannered techniques. She is not interested in interjecting herself through such techniques: “I think you reveal yourself by what you choose to photograph, but I prefer photographs that tell more about the subject. There’s nothing much interesting to tell about me; what’s interesting is the person I’m photographing, and that’s what I try to show...

“I think each photographer has a point of view and a way of looking at the world...that has to do with your subject matter and how you choose to present it. What’s interesting is letting people tell you about themselves in the picture.”

Mark’s choice of the word “unfamous” goes beyond the people portrayed to apply to the stories as a whole. As she says: “I always wanted to photograph the universal subjects.” In other words, she does not rush off to the scene of breaking news: a fire, a war zone, or a presidential visit. She looks for feeling, not event.

Because of the vulnerability of many of her subjects, Mark does worry about exploiting them. She tries to reconcile her need to tell the story with the intrusion into their lives: “It’s a very hard thing to live with often...I’m interested in those kinds of stories, so I just look at myself and say, ‘I’m taking a lot by taking these pictures. Are the photographs being seen by anyone? Am I giving anything back?’ And I honestly don’t know. It’s hard.”

Though not front-page news, her subjects nonetheless often add a different perspective to issues of general concern, such as drug addiction, homelessness, and teenage pregnancy. The unexceptional nature of the people photographed allows them to be seen in a larger context. Said Mark in one interview: “What you look for is a symbol of something in everyone’s life.”

Mark describes her work as “documentary,” although she acknowledges that it may also be called “photojournalism.” The sometimes interchangeable terms are a cause of general confusion in writing about photography because each is a broad category, and neither refers to a homogenous monolithic class. Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs perfectly fulfill both definitions (that is to say, the dilemma seems to be a writer’s, not a photographer’s).

Her work appears in some of the best-known magazines and newspapers in the world, and, as such, it is
photojournalism. Part of the confusion arises from the fact that photojournalism can be said to document current events, such as the demise of Communism in the Eastern bloc. Photographers who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall were creating a document for the future. As the cliche says, they were “catching history on the run.”

Immediacy is basic to photojournalism. Time is an important element in all photography, but particularly so in the
aging of photojournalism: “old news” is an oxymoron.

Photojournalism arises from the conjunction of a photographer’s pictures and a writer’s words. The best stories result when the individuals become a team heading along parallel tracks to the same destination. Then, the words and pictures do not work at cross purposes, but they each illustrate the other, providing the reader with a deeper understanding of the story.

News is also a product. Agencies hire photographers and purchase photographs. Most photographers work for newspapers, magazines, or news services, and they seldom photograph events of their own choosing. They demonstrate their professionalism through the ability to come away from diverse circumstances with an accurate account of the situation as they see it.

There are many types of photojournalism, from single newspaper images to the longer essay form made famous in this country by LIFE magazine. This variety may confuse those who try to pigeonhole a photographer. In the end it’s better to be grateful for wonderful photographs than to worry about abstract definitions.

Examples of documentary photography range from flat, impersonal statements of fact, such as evidential or real-estate photographs, to highly subjective reactions to reality. Categorizing “documentary” as a style of photography shortchanges both the photographers and the work, for there are a myriad of styles–from the cool rationality of Walker Evans to the gritty sensuality of Larry Fink. Documentary photography is, rather, an approach to the medium.

In his book Documentary Photography, Arthur Rothstein wrote that other words have been suggested, among them, “realistic, factual, historical–but none convey the deep respect for the truth and the desire to create active interpretations of the world in which we live that is the documentary tradition.”  Understood in this way, photojournalism is part of the older legacy of documentary photography.

Though some think of it as objective, documentary photography, like all photography, is an interpretation or personal description of the world. As photographer Dorothea Lange said, it “is not a factual photograph per se. The documentary photograph carries with it another thing, a quality in the subject that the artist responds to. It is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode or the circumstance or the situation that can only be revealed–because you can’t really recapture it–by this other quality. There is no real warfare between the artist and the documentary photographer. He has to be both.” The meaning and artistry of a documentary photograph, therefore, is embedded in the choice of subject and in its particular rendering by a photographer.

Because Mark always photographs people, her approach is referred to as “social documentary.” Her method of work, as previously described here, is not neutral but passionate. Unlike street photographers such as Lee Friedlander, whose work in the 1960s might also be called social documentary, she engages her subjects. They react to her presence and reveal something about themselves in the process.

Precedents for her work can be found in several places; no one exists in a vacuum. The work of three photographers–Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and W. Eugene Smith–suggests itself: Bourke-White because of her photographs’ strong graphic presence; Lange for her long-term commitment to certain subjects; and Smith for the strength of his photo essays, especially the late work, in which each image can stand on its own. All three tackled difficult subjects–war, poverty, homelessness, and disease--each photographer with a distinct approach.

Mark says that she loves Diane Arbus’s work, but her approach to the medium is very different. Even so, Mark’s photographs are sometimes erroneously compared to those of Arbus. There are certainly superficial similarities. Arbus also worked close to her subject, printed in black and white, and often chose atypical people to photograph. Mark, however, is not a cool observer of the aberrant. Her work is not about display but about engagement with larger social issues.

Mark’s friend Greg Heisler sees her work as too personal to fit his definition of documentary. Instead, he has invented a new category, calling it “psychodocumentary or social interpretive” photography.   Heisler characterizes most documentary photographers as saying: “’I am a witness, I’m not going to get involved, I don’t wish to alter–I only observe.’ In fact, it’s not true, not true at all. They move their camera here instead of there, they’ve made that decision, there’s a hierarchy. Documentary photographers don’t take responsibility for their vision. Mary Ellen does. Whenever I see her work, I don’t say, ‘Oh, so that is what it’s like.’ I think, ‘that’s Mary Ellen’s take on that.’”
Although he may not be right about the involvement of most documentary photographers, Heisler does recognize the emotional charge in Mark’s work.

As photographer Aaron Siskind has pointed out, Mark “digs deep, [and as a result] she is as fine a photographer as you can be.” What he particularly admires about her work, he says, is its objectivity–meaning that although she is a “woman full of feeling, she doesn’t allow that to overflow into sentimentality. The pictures are very straight and honest.”

The power of her work confounds easy categorization. It transcends its particular content and, though not sentimental, radiates emotional intensity.

Mark approached her work on the Indian circus with a characteristically intense involvement. She had visited her first Indian circus during her initial stay in the country in 1968. The strangeness of two sights stayed with her: a hippopotamus in a tutu, and a chimpanzee pushing a baby carriage with a human baby in it. She resolved to put together a story on the circus, but, as with Falkland Road, a long time elapsed between the idea and its fruition. Over the next twenty years, Mark saw many kinds of circuses in India, but she never had the financial backing to stay and explore the subject. Her chance came in 1989 in the form of a grant from the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House and the Professional Photography Division at Eastman Kodak.

Mark made two three-month trips to India, traveling with sixteen different circuses. She hired both American and Indian assistants. The Indian researcher Dayanita Singh was particularly helpful because she not only translated but contacted all the circus owners and pieced together the complicated logistics.

The mechanics and sheer energy needed for three people in search of circuses to travel with heavy photographic equipment was staggering. Mark’s personal equipment included four Nikon FM2 cameras and seven lenses; four Leica cameras–two M4-2s, one M4-P and one M-6–and five Leitz lenses; one Polaroid SX-70 camera; four Hasselblad cameras with six lenses; several strobes and flash units; and a half-dozen assorted light meters. She also used nearly a thousand rolls of Kodak Tri-X film. In part, the overabundance of equipment reflected her desire to be prepared in the event of breakdown in rural India.

Finding the circuses was sometimes a challenge, Mark explains: “Even if an owner agrees that you can photograph his circus, he doesn’t want to tell you the location until the very last second because they are competitive about locations.” For example, the owner of a particular Bengali circus was uncooperative, and Mark had difficulty getting information about the schedule. But she and her assistants didn’t give up, and they finally “found out where they were going to be. We went all the way to Benares–there were riots in Benares, but we rushed down there. We rushed to the site, and we came to this empty pit. It had moved two days before. No one knew where it went.”

Mark photographed circuses from different regions of India: Maharashtra, Bengal, and Kerala. Each had its own style. Although the circus originated in Europe, Mark points out that the Indians have adapted it to their own culture, liberally mixing the traditions of East and West. One obvious change has been the addition of animals not generally seen in a Western circus, such as the hippo, some pelicans, and even a vulture.

The Indian circus project bears many hallmarks of her previous work, being solely about a group of people and their way of life. By extension, it includes their animals, which seem to comment on human personality and weakness. The unknown performers and trainers move through a larger world perfecting their acts, accepting their particular destiny with grace and determination, letting the photographer into their world.

A small thing within the immensity of India, a traveling circus is not an item of current news, nor does it attract the
attention of the national or world media. Yet for Mark it holds insights that go far beyond its apparent significance: “I’m trying to look for certain universals--universals that stand for things we all feel. That’s why an exotic picture doesn’t interest me per se. I go to India to look again because it is a raw and open country. I love it. I think things are openly passionate there...I want to see them as they relate to my own culture and other cultures. l don’t want to see them as some exotic magic ritual...I look for things that cross cultural boundaries.”

For Mark, the circus tells a story about hope. Each is a closed, self-sufficient society, persevering in a hard life to create a dream world. They are not what they seem: elephants don’t wear glasses. And they are more than they seem: not performers hired to entertain, but a community carrying its world with it.

Mark’s photographs reveal the texture of circus life. Closeup portraits of acrobats and animals take precedence over long shots of the camp. She did not shoot the typical overview from the top row of the grandstand. Instead, she went into the ring itself or into the cage with a bear, or she stood in the center of the cage as the lions roared and jumped through hoops.

The pictures show the circus as an extended family–part of that family animals. Animals and humans depend completely on one another. The humans feed the animals, and the animals work with the family to provide the food.

Mark says that she likes the animals “as humans,” meaning, in part, that she takes them exactly as they are presented: a bear standing around in a shiny dress, a chimpanzee with running shoes, a small dog carrying an umbrella. The animals seem to be interchangeable with dwarfs, children, and adults. A dwarf dressed as a gorilla holds a dog, a young girl carries an adult male dwarf, and a chimp in a dress puts a protective arm around her trainer. The ironic confusion of identity, age, and place in society appeals to Mark’s sense of humor.

The performers train constantly to stay in shape. The acrobats work without nets and have to stay agile to avoid disaster. Says Mark: “It’s a country full of perfectionists...[In] one act this guy balances on his head while swinging on a swing seventy feet in the air. I said to him, ‘That’s incredible! What happens if you fall?’ and he replied, ‘Death comes.’”

Mark wasn’t interested in depicting how a circus moved, set up, and ran. She wanted to understand the people. And so the individual photographs stand alone, each telling its own story. Joyful, bizarre, and wonderful, together they show a range of types and feelings.

Twenty-one years after she saw that first costumed hippo, Mark found the resources to return for the long stay. This may be called obsession, but obsession is another word for perseverance, drive, belief in and commitment to one’s own vision, intense focus, knowing one’s own mind, and never turning aside from the recognized need for expression.

Mark tells students in her workshops to make whatever sacrifice they must to do their own work. She follows her own advice. A pragmatic woman, she encourages not foolishness but decision and control. She also tells students not to be defeated by a situation but to push on, that in order to be successful a photographer has to turn around a negative situation. Some stories will get done, some will not, and others will take years of incubation. As a photographer, she has learned to know the difference.

All her pictures contain the element of time: time spent watching, listening, talking. Mark says that the longer she stays, the closer she gets to her subject. And the closer she gets, the more likely she is to find her pictures–pictures that strike the core of an issue.

Mary Ellen Mark has won many awards, her work has been published around the world, and her books make her an influential presence in America. Yet for her, each job is the first job–to be cherished, fretted over, and plunged into. Piles of newspaper clippings await with stories yet to be researched and fought for. People remain endlessly fascinating. All she needs is an interested editor and lots of time.


Mary Ellen Mark, Unpublished interview with Marianne Fulton (February 12, 1990) (hereafter Mark 1990a).

Vicki Goldberg, "The Unflinching Eye: Photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark," The New York Times Magazine (July 12, 1987): sec. 6, 20 (hereafter Goldberg 1987).

Elizabeth La Bar, "Conversation with Mary Ellen Mark," Photographer's Forum 2, no. 2 (February/March 1980): 8.

Mark 1990a.




Ronald H. Bailey, "Mary Ellen Mark's Poignant Scrapbook: WARD 81," American Photographer 1, no. 1 (June 1978): 48.


Robert Hughes, "Pictures at an Institution: Some Mournful Images from a Mental Hospital," Time 111, no. 1 (January 23, 1978): 91.

Mark 1990a.





Mary Ellen Mark, Unpublished interview with Vicki Goldberg (August 16, 1989).

Mary Ellen Mark, Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981): 12.

Mark 1990a.

Prudence Heisler, Unpublished interview with Marianne Fulton (September 12, 1989) (hereafter P. Heisler 1989).

David Featherstone, Mary Ellen Mark: Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta, Untitled 39 (Carmel, CA: The Friends of Photography, 1985): 8.

Mark 1990a.

Goldberg 1987, 61.

Greg Heisler, Unpublished interview with Marianne Fulton (September 12, 1989) (hereafter G. Heisler 1989).

Mark 1990a.

P. Heisler 1989.

Kathy Ryan, Unpublished interview with Marianne Fulton (November 15, 1989) (hereafter Ryan 1989).

Ron Rosenbaum, "Too Young to Die?" The New York Times Magazine (March 12, 1989): sec. 6, pp. 12-18, 20, 57-58, 61.

Ryan 1989.


Peter Howe, Unpublished interview with Marianne Fulton (September 12, 1989) (hereafter Howe 1989).

Ryan 1989.

Howe 1989.

Mark 1990a.


Howe 1989.

Mark 1990a.

Ryan 1989.

Janis Bultman, "Street Shooter: An interview with Mary Ellen Mark," Darkroom Photography 9, no. 1 (January/February 1987): 22.

Mary Ellen Mark, Streetwise, ed. Nancy Baker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988): ix (hereafter Mark 1988).

Cheryl McCall, "Streets of the Lost," LIFE 6, no. 7 (July 1983): 41.

Mike Bygrave, "On the Streets Where They Live," The Sunday (London) Times Magazine (February 2, 1986): 20.

Mark 1988, x.


Mark 1989.

Mark 1990a.

Ryan 1989.

Mark 1990a.

Mark 1989.

Mark 1990a.

Mark 1989.


Goldberg 1987, 20.

Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography (Boston: Focal Press, 1986): xix.

Dorthea Lange in Rothstein 1986 p. 143.

G. Heisler 1989.


Aaron Siskind, Unpublished telephone interview with Marianne Fulton (August 13, 1990).


Mary Ellen Mark, Interview with Marianne Fulton (March 20, l990b).


Mark 1990a.

Mark 1990b.