Personal Work, the Documentary Photography of Mary Ellen Mark, by Shelley Rice
Shelley Rice
Mary Ellen Mark

Generally speaking, those of us in the art world, and the cultural milieu at large, base our judgements of a photographic body of work on certain root assumptions. One of the primary ‑and usually unstated ‑ assumptions is that the merit of a project is directly relative to the amount of time (read "commitment") an artist has devoted to it. In other words, an image-maker who has spent ten years working with a community of people is bound to produce a work with more depth, intimacy and understanding than, for instance, a photojournalist who documents the community for only a day, a week or a month on assignment. Depending on the innate skill and perceptiveness of the photographer, this is often true, so there is sometimes much to be gained from this line of reasoning. But there is also much to be lost by it, if it is put up as the only model of achievement. If taken as a universal axiom, a Truth of photography rather than a standard which pertains only in certain circumstances, such an assumption can blind us, almost willfully, to alternative modes of perceiving and judging photographs that are, in many ways, more relevant to our cultural production.

On the bottom line, we are a media culture. What this means is that by far the majority of our professional photographers make their living by creating images based on their short-term involvement in a project--images which are then bought, sold, published and distributed to the public at large or to a specific market. Certain networks have been established to facilitate this photo-traffic, and most of the pictures we actually see (however briefly) come to us from this context. If we hold fast to the "time is greatness" rule, what we are saying is that we tacitly do not accept that there are possibilities for growth, development and depth within the image‑world in which we live. We are echoing the romantic, purist and anti‑commercial attitudes of an Alfred Stieglitz ‑ while disregarding both Stieglitz's family money and the more important fact that his ideas grew out of a cultural milieu which existed a century ago. Instead of calling, like Baudelaire, for a "painter of modern life," I'm looking for standards that can be relevant to a "photographer of modern life:" because by setting standards that automatically exclude photo‑workers from our serious attention, we, like the French academic painters of the 19th century, are closing our eyes to the modes of perception, creation and production that are most characteristically ours.

I am not a postmodernist critic, so I am not interested in accepting, indeed celebrating, a lot of the superficial, formularized and simply bad photography seen in the media in the name of modernity. What I am asking, instead, is whether another point of view is possible that might open up our discourse to more of the contemporary image-world, and offer us a chance to judge certain photographic works from assumptions more in harmony with their production. We are no longer (let's face it) the same society that produced Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, or the epic works of Shakespeare; whatever pretentions we have to the contrary, we have actually, as a culture, rejected the unified value systems that make such works possible, or even desirable. We have designed contemporary technological culture on a different model altogether ‑a model of global communications, networks of signs and symbols, and fragmented bits of information. Such a world gives artists a different challenge, a different task of interpretation; it demands from them flexibility, mobility and succinctness, rather than an a priori overview to be developed in unity and depth. There are photographers who have risen to this challenge, who have sought to express their visions through these new and thoroughly modern types of creative possibilities; and it seems to me both short‑sighted and retrograde not to recognize, in Baudelaire's words again, the "heroism" of their attempts.

"Ethiopia," 1985, Ektacolor, 16"x20"

One such photographer is Mary Ellen Mark. Mark earned a degree in photojournalism from the University of Pennsylvania (where she had begun her graduate work in painting) in 1964, and the next year won a Fulbright grant to photograph in Turkey. Since that time, she has traveled all over the world, and is well-known for assignments in such magazines as Life, Look, Esquire, The London Sunday Times, Paris‑Match, Ms. Magazine, and The New York Times. She has produced four bookworks: Passport, a book of photographs published in 1974; Ward 81, which documents the women in the psychiatric ward of Oregon State Hospital (where Mark lived for 36 days); Falkland Road, which records the lives of prostitutes in Bombay (with whom she lived for three months); and most recently, Mother Theresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta, a volume in the Friends of Photography's Untitled series. She works in black and white and in color, with Leicas, Nikons, Rolleiflexes or whatever she feels best suits the situation; she has even, with her husband Martin Bell, made a film about the children who live on the streets in Seattle, entitled Streetwise. Her subjects include not only the above mentioned characters but also celebrities, battered wives and abused children, people in New York's Coney Island, youth at a prom in the Midwest, people in Santa Barbara and Miami, famine victims in Ethiopia, the night club crowd in Las Vegas and neo‑Nazi's in the United States. In other words, Mark's career--and photographic production--have been characterized by an almost dizzying diversity, a catch‑as‑catch‑can quality that is as dependent on chance in the assignments offered to her as it is upon her own personal choices of subjects and themes.


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"Ethiopia," 1985, Ektacolor, 16"x20"

Given this diversity, and the rapidity with which she must work, this photographer is not eligible for serious discussion ‑ if one adheres strictly to the normal standards of aesthetic choice, extended time periods for working, and lack of commercial gain. But using another standard of judgement can throw new light on her work, more in keeping with its actual nature. The first shift in perception must involve dropping the emphasis on specific subject matter which is at the root of the "time as greatness" rule; foregoing the requirement, for instance, that one must spend ten years dealing with the same, particular community. Just letting go of this obsession with specific subject matter frees us to perceive a photographer's life in different terms, more relevant perhaps to our global, fragmented communication networks: as a series of photographic projects varied in subject but still developing one ongoing theme, a theme which can thus be explored in different times and places, in different media and from various points of view. Looked at from that perspective, the coherence ‑ and the growth, and the depth ‑ of Mary Ellen Mark's work clearly appears.

For Mark is a photographer who has been intensely, indeed passionately, involved with only one theme during the 23 years of her career: people. The concept "people" is only an abstract, a historical idea, but Mary Ellen has spent several decades giving this idea flesh, showing us what it means in the most concrete possible terms. She has sought out men, women and children of different nations, classes, beliefs, customs, lifestyles and circumstances; she has recorded their dreams, their realities, their relationships, their tragedies and their joys. She has located the idea of people within history, our contemporary history, increment by increment, and in so doing has built a composite image of humankind by documenting its various particulars. Such a method of working demands not that a specific project develop in depth and insight, but that the photographer herself do so, that each bit of input she gains heightens her sensitivity to the next assignment. Seen in this way, Mark's photographic output is all of a piece, one extended body of work developed over time rather than in a specific space; an obsession which organizes not only art but life, and can only unfold in its entirety bit by bit, like a collage or a puzzle whose pieces are scattered all over the world and must be sought in different places, with different people, by different means.

It should be clear that such a way of looking at this photojournalist's work allows us to sidestep the rigid splits between public and private, commercial and personal, and high and low art that lately have seemed so limiting to photographic discourse ‑ and, in a world which has given us W Eugene Smith, Deborah Turbeville, Duane Michals, Sandi Feliman and Sarah Moon, so often irrelevant. All of Mark's photographs, no matter what the origin of the assignment, are personal work; some of the images may be deeper, better realized or more in tune with her interests than others, but all of them build on the theme central to her life's work. The overall quality and conceptual unity of Mary Ellen's production, her inclination toward challenging and strenuous assignments, her consistent insight into the emotional, spiritual, political and economic realities of people's lives: all of these factors have allowed her to carve out a very individualized place for herself within the precincts of art and journalism alike. It is the place of the old fashioned "concerned photographer," struggling to make a statement of gravity and humanitarianism in a society where compassion is passé.

"Ethiopia," 1985, Ektacolor, 16"x20".

"Hayden Lake, Idaho;" 1986; silver gelatin; 11"x14".

"Ethiopia," 1985, Ektacolor, 16"x20".

Like any talented "concerned photographer," Mary Ellen is at her best when she is photographing the dispossessed, the downtrodden and the unfortunate. But her take on these people and their plight is truly her own. She has never, for instance, been interested, like Gene Smith, in the heroicizing of suffering, in the archetypal battles between victims and villains, good guys and bad. Smith's was a mythologizing vision; Mark's is more rooted in the mundane and the particular, in the day‑to‑day struggles, rituals and relationships that make up a life, however heroic or tragic. Even her Mother Theresa is not portrayed as as saint, but as a woman with a calling, who goes about accomplishing the (albeit remarkable) task she has set for herself. Mark is most effective when she captures not the great dramas but the small things: bath time on Ward 81, the gestures, simultaneously tough and vulnerable, of street kids, the closeness between the women working in the brothels on Falkland Road. Such a focus allows her to get beyond the stereotypes of circumstances and to individualize her sitters, while at the same time emphasizing their common humanity, the bonds that link these people in extreme situations to each other and to us. One gets the sense that this photographer is less interested in proselytizing the liberal cause than in showing us that people in difficult, even horrific, circumstances exist as full and complex human beings; that they, like us, are people who cope as best they can, and who try to reach out and touch each other ‑ and the photographer ‑ for mutual support and comfort.

The photographs shown here represent two very different projects, in just about every way. Five of the prints depict starving people in Ethiopia, taken on assignment for Life magazine in 1985. The other five are portraits of American neo‑Nazi's, participants in the Aryan Nations Congress which took place at Hayden Lake, Idaho, in 1986, and which Mark documented for The London Sunday Times. The contrast in subject is, of course, almost overwhelming; as Mary Ellen put it, "On the one hand you have the victims, and on the other you have the motherfuckers." But the differences don't stop there. The Ethiopian pictures are 16"x20" prints from color negatives, taken with a Leica or a Nikon and using a 35mm lens; the Aryan photographs are black and white 11 "x 14" images taken with a 2 1/4 SLX single lens Rolleiflex, using Tri‑X film and either an 80 or a 60mm lens. The Ethiopian pictures are candid or as candid as such pictures can be. Mark spent a month in Korem, a relief camp, and became involved in the peoples' lives; they were aware of, but accustomed to, her presence, and as she says: "You can be a fly on the wall more easily in these circumstances because the event itself is so incredible, and so much more important than you." The Aryan prints, by contrast, are posed portraits, taken over only a period of a few days, during which time she was never allowed to enter the Aryan Nation "camp," and was always treated with the circumspection and suspicion accorded to an outsider. So, seen together, these pictures give us a sense of the range of interactions and assignments that together make up this photojournalist's life.

Viewers should always be aware that placing these photographs in an exhibition, where they are severed from their original context on the printed page, subtly alters their meaning. Both picture essays were done in conjunction with writers ‑ Cheryl McCall for Life and Simon Winchester for The London Sunday Times ‑ and thus were used as visual counterparts to extended journalistic texts, densely packed with information about the situation and the people involved. The 3/4 length portrait of the starving young child, his eyes old and wise in their intensity and his arms protectively wrapped around him, for instance, was accompanied by details of this boy's particular story: he was a 10‑year old orphan named Fantaye Abay who walked 20 miles to Korem from his village after the death from starvation of his parents, only to be turned away by the government, and sent into the fields without warm clothing or food to meet with almost certain death, because he had not been officially registered with the government bureaucracy as an orphan. Seen in this context, the photo is specific, very much the trace of one boy trapped in an awful plight. Seen separately in an exhibition without the verbal commentary, however, it becomes a powerful but generalized metaphor for children, indeed people, suffering everywhere.

Interestingly enough, Mark's Ethiopian pictures do not particularly emphasize suffering. It seems, rather, as if suffering was like the air here: omnipresent, the backdrop and condition for everything. Mary Ellen doesn't exploit the emaciated bodies or the pain visible here; she has taken no "cheap shots" in order to easily elicit our sympathy or reinforce our clichés. She has instead chosen to emphasize, in the midst of this horror, the strength of the peoples' love for each other, their will to care for the relatives and friends in death as in life. The women tenderly bending over the man whose back has lost almost all flesh; the mother, whose rag-covered body is like a landscape which supports her two children's heads as she reaches out her arm to comfort them; the father cradling the head of a dying youngster while another, obviously in pain, stands by; even the baby being born to almost certain death: all of these testify to an awesome human dignity and pride, a will to live and most of all to preserve what is best in human life even in the throes of the most appalling circumstances. It is impossible to look at these pictures and feel that easy pity bordering on the sentimental (and so often tinged with condescension) which is the stuff of yellow journalism; rather, one comes away in awe of these peoples' quiet strength and acceptance, their humanity ‑ in the most exalted sense ‑which cannot even be broken by the unfairness of fate or the murderous policies of their military regime.

The openness of the Ethiopian famine victims, their obvious trust of the photographer and willingness to expose their lives and deaths to her camera, must be contrasted with the closed, almost hostile and defensive, portraits of the neo‑Nazi's. The situation was, of course, very different: as mentioned above, Mark was kept off their premises and was only allowed to take posed pictures, after much persuasion, outside and away from any kind of activity of the Congress. She had, therefore, no access to their rituals or their actions ‑ or, as these photographs make clear, to their internal lives. These are evidently people who do not put much stock in spiritual growth and refinement, but who prefer instead to project themselves outward, with an aggressiveness that is a shocking contrast to the nonaggressive presence of the Ethiopians. These men communicate through the threatening symbols of their militancy and their hatred, and their hierarchy is clearly defined by outward trappings: insignia, uniforms, camouflage, tatoos, guns, body guards and watch dogs.




all: "Hayden Lake, Idaho;" 1986; silver gelatin; 11 x 14".

Everything about these pictures is "guarded" ‑ from the leaders surrounded by their entourages, to the guns which so often come between the photographer and her sitters, to the eyes which reveal nothing. One senses that these men are hiding behind their caps and robes, their military outfits and their dogs; even the man who bares his nude shoulder only does so to emphasize the blazing swastika tatooed thereon, so his shoulder becomes almost a shield for his boyish and freckled face. It is hard to look at these images and not be reminded of the macho games boys play in the schoolyard, so the actual presence of children in two of the prints is frightening; our hopes for childhood innocence, and human potential and growth, vanish when we see a small boy with his father's real gun, or a sleepy girl nestled against her Klan father's chest. What exactly does paternal love mean in the context of war games and racial hatred?

Striking too is the presence of nature here. One ironic offshoot of the restrictions on Mark's movements is that she had to photograph outdoors, where these brutal men are seen in the context of flowers and trees (at which, more often than not, their guns are pointed). The artifice of the elaborate black robes of the Grand Wizard from California seems small and almost irrelevant in this natural landscape. Only Girnt Butler, the leader of the Aryan Nations, effectively dominates the environment. Seen through a 60mm lens, his lined, pudgy face and large body pressing against the picture plane as if they would pop out, Butler rules over clouds, trees and fields devoid of people ‑ Aryan or otherwise. It seems unlikely, almost surreal, that such a peaceful scene could become the arena for so much hatred.

But, then again, don't we always say that "truth is stranger than fiction?" One of the advantages of a photojournalist's career is that she or he gets to experience that strangeness, and the immense complexity of human life, firsthand. By bringing us these two divergent series of images, Mark has shown us two of the many sides of contemporary existence to which she has been a witness: two contrasting ways of life and death, of love and hate, in two different countries which, materially and spiritually, could almost be two different worlds. But these victims and villains are facets in a continuum of human experience that is infinite in richness and in scope. Mary Ellen Mark wants to see it all.