This month, the Philadelphia Museum of Art premieres a major retrospective by the area native whose still poetry captures moments of frank reality.
Mary Ellen Mark
Wildwood, New Jersey, 1991
Vera Antinoro, Rhoda Camporato and Murray Goldman, Luigi's Italian American Club, 1993
Equally at home with Mother Teresa, Nancy Spungen or a Tennessee KKK rally, Mary Ellen Mark has the knack of recording subjects on their own terms. Her black-and-white prints bear a superficial resemblance to the gritty photos of the outré and outrageous by Diane Arbus and Danny Lyon, but Mark is alone in never seeming to judge the weirdness in front of her. “I look for content,” she says from her New York City studio. “Whatever it is. Different each time.” What she invariably finds is the poignant human aspect, and her subjects seem comfortable even at their moments of greatest revelation. Mark’s four decades of work—on display in II published volumes, in ads for the likes of Levi’s, Coke and Heineken, and in magazines such as Life, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Vogue—most closely resemble the oeuvre of the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the “decisive moment.”
The former Cheltenham High cheerleader (and Penn grad, Annenberg Communication M.A. and honorary Penn Fine Arts Ph.D.) returns to Philly this spring with a traveling exhibition opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the 13th. Culled from her 1999 book Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey, it collects 150 prints of her magazine work—everything from a cigarette-smoking Santa in a New York diner in 1963 to masked suburbanites in a West Orange hot tub in 1999.
The book and exhibit, paradoxically, evoke sadness for Mark. “Magazines have changed,”” she says. “The assignments that went into those pictures aren’t coming anymore. Now, they want glitz and postmodernism. Forget it.”