Photo Eye
THE HUMANIST TRADITION
Mary Ellen Mark discusses a life of penetrating work in service to documentary photography.
Summer 2005
BY TONY O’BRIEN
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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MARY ELLEN MARK (AMERICAN, b. 1942) HAS BEEN
one of documentary photography's staunchest proponents for close to three decades. Her work is informed and characterized by the great humanist tradition that traces its roots back through W. Eugene Smith and Cartier‑Bresson to Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, among others.

I first met Mary Ellen Mark through her photographs. In particular, her in‑depth story about the Damm family. The photographs are haunting and real. She brought the family and their world to life. The photographs speak without words.

Phaidon has just published a massive retrospective on Mark's work, featuring 134 photographs and extensive notes on the images. It is a fitting tribute.

Documentary photography has changed over the years. Its one constant, however, is that it still has the ability to give people a voice. With her work, Mary Ellen Mark has accomplished that time and again.

What follows is an interview conducted in April, 2005 by photographer and professor Tony O'Brien with Mary Ellen Mark about her new book.

TO: I want to start with your definition of documentary photography. It's a term that you use a great deal, that we all use a great deal. What does it mean for you?

MEM: I see myself as a photographer that's really interested in showing reality.

TO: ... and people.

MEM: Well, for people. I think you can also be a documentary photographer and not photograph people. I think you can do pictures of gas stations or pictures of cityscapes or whatever and that's documentary photography too. But basically, I think, documentary photography involves reality.

TO: In doing this book, you seem to have really looked over your life. Have you looked at your life in this way before? It seems like you really got inside.

MEM: I did. In some ways, it made me very sad. I looked at many, many pictures and tried to single out the ones that I felt really stood on their own and survived. The way I've supported myself over the years and been able to produce these pictures is to convince magazines to sponsor the different things I'm doing and as we know, magazines today are disposable. So I tried to look at the pictures that really survived that process; I've always tried to make pictures that would survive. I mean that's always been my goal. It's hard to do; you don't always do that.

TO: No, no you don't. But, how is it that you were sad?

MEM: Because the magazine world is so changed now. They don't want this kind of work anymore. They want something different, whether it's digital or whether it's 'surface' or whatever. They'll make portraits of things involved in particular events but they won't go into the story of everyday life or the story of an institution in everyday life, the way magazines used to. They used to tell stories about the world, our world. And they don't anymore.

TO: Tell me how you like to work

MEM: I've always wanted to go places by myself and just to work quietly, alone.

TO: How much of yourself do you bring to the photograph?

MEM: Well, I think you do bring yourself to a picture. But I don't like to alter the reality. I think a lot of pictures that we see in magazines are overstylized and uninteresting. There's a stylist and the people's clothes have been changed and someone is leaping up in the air or doing something stupid. That doesn't interest me. I think what's most interesting is letting the person bring who they are to the photographer and letting the picture be about the person, not the photographer. And I think the problem with a lot of the stuff we see now is that it's all about the photographer. Who cares!

TO: It's about giving the person a voice, not the photographer.

MEM: Exactly. And there will always be something about them that is interesting. You just have to find what it is.

TO: When you begin an assignment, do you begin photographing right away?

MEM: I begin photographing right away. I think you have to state the reasons why you're there and if you kind of make friends sometimes you say, "Oh I made friends and then I took out my camera," but then it's sort of like you were there under false reasons. So I like to make it clear from the very beginning.

TO: You establish yourself as a photographer.

MEM: Exactly.

TO: And you know when to stop shooting?

MEM: Well, sometimes when you're working on a project, you have a time limit for yourself. But you could go on shooting forever if you let yourself.

TO: Now, another question, about Tiny and her family. How much do you get involved with your subjects? To watch Tiny, to watch her children and to see what happened over the course of her life... that's got to be difficult. How do you define your boundaries?

MEM: Well I guess with Tiny, it's different. I'm like part of her family at this point because I've been around for so many years. In a way, there are no boundaries with her. With Tiny I'm pretty much free with her to do what I want to do. But I've never wanted to become cruel with people, with my subjects. I could go further with Tiny if I wanted to, but something stops me. Nothing is worth a photograph hurting somebody. It just isn't.

TO: What would be your greatest hope or wish with this retrospective of your work? What would you hope that it would do for the viewer?

MEM: Well, I'd hope that the book would allow the viewer to enter the lives of the many different people I've photographed and to live with the pictures. And I would hope the pictures would mean something to them.

TO: And to have a better understanding of life or the world that we live in.

MEM: Well, of people. I've never felt, "Oh, I think photographs change the world." I'm not sure that there are many photographs that have. But I just would hope that the reader would really look at the pictures and have a feeling for the people I photographed and for the pictures.

TO: There is an on‑going discussion about art in the photography community. Do you feel that your work is art or...

MEM: Well, I leave that up to the people that look at the pictures. I mean, I think you can never go about your work, no matter what you do, saying "I'm an artist." I feel I've tried my best to make images that last and I think it's up to the viewer to decide if it's art or not. One thing I know about doing work and expressing yourself as a photographer or painter or whatever, is that you can never try and be something that you're not. It has to come from your soul. You can't become a postmodernist or conceptualist, you cant say, "I'm going to be conceptual." You can’t. It has to be what you're about, what you feel, what you grieve. About your obsessions. These pictures are about my obsessions and people can look at them and decide for themselves whether it's art or whether it's not. I would just hope that they would last as pictures. That's what I strive for, for the photographs to be lasting.

TO: You've mentioned that looking back there is sadness. But there must also be great joy in seeing what you've done and the lives you've touched and the people who have allowed you into their lives. Is that true?

MEM: I feel very fortunate that I was able to have the opportunity and to take it, and to have this work be published and seen and sponsored. I would certainly love to continue this type of work.

TO: Is there one project or one photograph that sums up how you have changed? Have there been particular moments that had a great effect on you and your life?

MEM: Well, every project has important moments. Every project that you do you feel that there's always something, if it's been successful, that you can look back on and think "that was an incredible moment" and "I remember when I was lucky enough to take this picture." But I have to say if I had to pick one project that I'd like to go back and work more on because it was so extraordinary, where each day brought so much, it was working with the circus.

TO: Really?

MEM: I've always loved the circus, because it is so extraordinarily visual. It was an amazing experience. And I love India. I do. I haven't been back there in a few years. And I hope I have a chance to go back one day but I really do love it. It is an amazing place.


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TO: If I am a young aspiring documentary photographer and I come to you and say, "Mary Ellen, this is what I want to

How do I proceed?"

MEM: I always tell students that they have to follow their dreams. It's very important to do that. And maybe they will have to take another job for awhile and just do photography the love of it. It can be very difficult starting out today as a documentary photographer. But if that's what you love, that's that you should do.

TO: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

MEM: I'd like to say how much I really still believe in and we great documentary work and appreciate it. Not just the work I try and do, but also the work of others.

Exposure. Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark. Introduction

Weston Naef. Phaidon, London, 2005. 288 pp., 17 color d 118 duotone illustrations, 10 x 12. $79.95

END