Photographer's Forum
Spring 2001
By Claire Sykes
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Tiny, Black Hat and Veil, Streetwise, Seattle, WA, 1983

Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2000.

She stands with arms crossed, her black-gloved hands gripping her skin. Shielded by the netted veil of her Halloween‑costume hat, her eyes lunge defiant, demanding we keep our distance. Sixteen years later, Mary Ellen Mark once again points her camera at Tiny, showing us the same crossed arms and etched‑in frown, a look of resignation on her tear‑stained face.

Not a pretty picture. But then Mark doesn't necessarily want her photos to make us feel good. She just wants them to make us feel. "I try to touch on a certain reality that will move people and mean something to them," she tells me by phone from her New York City studio. "I'd hope that my work has a point of view, and an edge and sense of humanity, and that people can see that's how I see the world. Maybe they'll look at something they haven't looked at before, in an unfamiliar way."

Famous for her social documentary photos of people living on the edge of mainstream culture, Mark has traveled all over the world since the early 1960s, compelling us to stop at what we otherwise might pass by — from her shots of Tiny (and other Seattle teenage runaways) and London drug addicts to Indian circuses, Christian bikers and cross-dressers.

Over the years, Mark's photo essays and portraits of famous people have appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Life, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Vogue, among others. She has also photographed advertising campaigns for Barnes and Noble, British Levis, Good Housekeeping and Coach Bags. She has received numerous awards, grants and fellowships, including the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography (1997), a Hasselblad Foundation Grant (1997), a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (1994) and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1977, 1979 and 1990).

Nazi Wizard with Sleeping Child, Aryan Nations

In May 2000 the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched the first major traveling exhibition of Mark's American, black‑and‑white photos from 1963‑99. It was accompanied by the 151‑page Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey (1999, Aperture), one of 12 books exclusively featuring her work. Many of the photos in this collection show us the hardships of people's lives while getting to the heart of what it means to be human. Her black‑and‑white images convey the many shades of gray in her subjects' lives, steeped as they are in contrast and contradiction, ambivalence and ambiguity.

Mark doesn't necessarily want her photos to make us feel good. She just wants them to make us feel.

Some of the scenarios are difficult for me to look at, let alone imagine photographing. I ask her how she does it. "I don't find them uncomfortable places to be," she explains. "It's life and reality, and that's really what I'm interested in."

So far, the most extreme situation she has ever encountered is Bombay's Falkland Road, where the city's less expensive prostitutes live and work. Though she had gone there several times since 1968, it wasn't until October 1978 that she photographed the women for several months — but not until people there stopped throwing insults and garbage at her every day. Eventually, they began to appreciate her persistence, and very slowly she made friends. "I didn't want to do romantic portraits of them," says Mark of the prostitutes. "I wanted to show what it's really like for these women. The photos aren't about India, but about women selling their bodies. To be able to touch on that reality was difficult, but it worked."

Making contact with people is one of the most important things to Mark about photographing. The other is creating a great image— "one with powerful, meaningful content, an original way of seeing something and beautiful design."

At Luigi's Italian American Club in Miami, Florida, two elderly women strut the youth they won't admit they've lost. Without the man and his macho chest strolling beside them or the mural sized Frank Sinatra crooning in the background, Mark's photo would not speak so eloquently about the desperate desire to avoid growing old while clinging to the last vestiges of sex appeal.

Through my photos, I hope that other people will see those who have a tougher time in life and be more sympathetic to humanity.

Linda, Dean and Chrissy in Bed, Damm Family Revisited]

One of Mark's well‑known subjects is the Damm family, sought out by Life magazine who hired her to photograph them in 1987. When she first met the California couple and their two children, they were living out of their car. Seven years later, when the magazine sent her out again, she found them as squatters on an abandoned ranch. Both parents are heavy drug users and Mark documents their weary lives, but not without capturing the affection and love they share with their children.

Life also included Mark's photos of Tiny and her peers in a 1983 photo essay on Seattle's teenage runaways. The photos served as the basis for the Oscar‑nominated documentary film Streetwise (produced by Mark and directed by her husband Martin Bell, of American Heart renown). What can we say about Lillie, one hand pinching the butt of a cigarette (or is it a joint?), the other clutching a rag doll?

Magazines find some of Mark's subjects, others she seeks out or comes across herself. Before beginning a project, she researches the location, often finding contacts there beforehand to help her. When she faces an assignment, she admits, "I'm always afraid I'll fail, then I start to work and something happens and it's OK."

I ask her if being a woman has made a difference. "I've never been discriminated against," she offers. "As a documentary photographer, it's actually a big advantage being a woman, because people are less threatened."

Mark spends time with her subjects to establish a relationship and garner their trust. It comes down to being herself and showing interest in the people she photographs so they feel confident and comfortable with her. "I just see something and it touches me in a certain way, then I translate that feeling with the camera," she says.

Bull rider Craig Scarmardo and Cheyloh Mather, Boerne Rodeo, Texas, 1991

Jeff Gilman and Stacy Spivey, McKee, Kentucky, 1990

For documentary work, she uses a variety of cameras, preferring black‑and‑white film "because I like the essence of it, the way it captures a moment. For me, it's a strong film for content."

One American Odyssey photo brazenly depicts the Mission, Texas poverty of a boy named Nestor lying on an unmade bed cluttered with clothes beside a rusty refrigerator open to empty bottles, rolls of toilet paper and anything but food. Then there's Mona with her angry fist, surrounded by the barred windows of Ward 81 in Salem, Oregon. While some people may view her photos as exploitive, I see only empathy.

Mark makes it clear: "I'm not a missionary. I'm there to take pictures and document people's lives. Through my photos, I hope that other people will see those who have a tougher time in life and be more sympathetic to humanity."
What I photograph is based in reality, and that's what I love. I'm not putting commercial work down, because that's what allows me to do the photography I want. But I'm not a post‑modernist, so I'm not going to try to do those images just because they sell in magazines.

W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Andre Kertesz and Helen Levitt have inspired her ever since she first picked up a camera. That was in the early 1960s. In 1962, she earned a B.F.A. in painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, and two years later she received a scholarship for an M.A. in photography at the university's Annenberg School for Communications.

"I've always been interested in people and making contact with them, particularly unknown people, and documentary photography allows for that," says Mark. "When I started out, I made the choice to take pictures that would last and have meaning, not to go into commercial magazine and advertising photography. I don't regret it, because it's given me the chance to create photos that, hopefully, will live on."

After receiving a Fulbright scholarship to document life in Turkey, Mark moved to New York City in 1966. A year later, while shooting for Jubilee, a Catholic publication, she got her first real break with a Look magazine assignment to photograph the set of Satyricon and Fellini himself. Next, the magazine flew her to London to document drug addicts and junkies.

Marky Mark Concert

"I was very lucky that magazines supported my work then. If I were just getting started now as a documentary photographer, it would be much harder," she says. "I wish I could make more money doing my own work, though. It would be great to get an advertising assignment that actually reflects my documentary work. Once in a while, I've had ad work that really suits what I do. But it's difficult, particularly now, when magazines want glitzy, trendy photos. What I photograph is based in reality, and that's what I love. I'm not putting commercial work down, because that's what allows me to do the photography I want. But I'm not a post‑modernist, so I'm not going to try to do those images just because they sell in magazines. I won't change. I have to be who I am and fight for that. Some people won't call me because my work is 'retro.' But that's just too bad. I'll keep on being 'retro.’"

Two Women Dancing, Miami Gigolos 93

Mark gladly gives up the pressure to please many magazine editors in order to please herself. She's off travelling about 40 percent of the year and never leaves without her camera. "I feel better having it with me. You never know what'll come up." When I ask her what she does when she's not photographing or preparing for a project, she says, "I'm always doing things related to work. I don't have much down time. Nothing feels better than to go out there and make pictures." She calls it "an obsession," one of her strengths as a photographer. "That and a desire only to get better, never to be self‑satisfied and feel that I've reached my goal, but always to go beyond it."

Now at 60, Mark has been photographing for nearly 40 years. What continues to inspire her? "What keeps it alive is the fact that it's not easy to take really good pictures. It's still challenging. You learn formulas for solving problems as you continue to work, but still, it's hard to make that great picture, that epic image that peo­ple will remember.”

How can I forget young Tiny's hard‑core glare? Or the way that little girl holds up her dress like an open parachute, exposing and concealing herself at the same time, in stark contrast with the disinterest of the boy beside her?

In Mark's photos, compassion looks at us through the eyes of a leprosy patient's nurse; loneliness speaks in the wallpaper of a transvestite's New York hotel room; vulnerability sneaks out in a child's expression while her precocious cousin stands there believing so much in the smoke of her cigarette. In Mark's photos, we meet all kinds of people struggling with and celebrating all kinds of lives. Not only do we see the similarities among them, but sometimes we can even see ourselves.

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer currently living in Victoria, British Columbia. She covers the visual arts and design, music, health care, business and restaurants. Her articles on photography appear in
Photo District News, Photo Insider, Camera Arts, Photo Life and Studio Photography & Design.