Photographers International
Mary Ellen Mark's "Indian circus"
June 1993
By Frank Horvat, editor of Photographers International (France)
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark









Mary Ellen Mark was born 1940 in Philadelphia, USA. "As a kid," she recalls, "I used to dream about airplanes, before I ever flew in one. When I became a photographer, I thought of it as a way of knowing different cultures, in foreign countries as well as my own, and also as a means of entering other people's lives. Had I ever had a scientific mind, I would have loved being a psychiatrist."

Today one has only to glance at a list of her major essays: ‑WARD 81 (Women in Mental Hospital, 1979) ‑FALKLAND ROAD (Prostitutes in Bombay) ‑STREETWISE (Teenage runaways in Seattle, 1983) ‑MOTHER TERESA'S HOME FOR THE DYING (Calcutta, 1985) to see that Mary Ellen Mark has lived up to her dream.

Her images have been printed in magazines (LIFE, CONDE NAST PUBLICATIONS, NEW YORK SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE), published in many books, shown in exhibitions (ICP New York, CASTELLI GRAPHICS New York, PALAIS DE TOKYO Paris). Her contribution to photography has been recognized by several awards.

Among the photographers she admires, Mary Ellen Mark mentions Cartier‑Bresson, Kertesz, Robert Frank, Edouard Boubat. But her principal references — on opposite poles, as it were — are Diane Arbus and W. Eugene Smith. "No matter whom Arbus photographed," Mary Ellen says, "she could somehow see them in a very personal way ‑ which is what I like. On the other hand no one has ever matched W. Eugene Smith's reportage work of the 1950's and 1960's. While Arbus gave us permission to look hard at precisely those people our mothers had warned us not to stare at, Smith mapped the ground for concerned photographers report on life's casualties and efforts to care for them."

The quotation is from an interview by Vicki Goldberg, of the New York Times. The writer comments: "Mary Ellen Mark has combined the two photographic traditions in a manner all her own. Where Smith made heroes of country doctors and Arbus made witches of housewives, Mark finds mainly strangers and survivors. She shares Smith's guarded optimism about the human capacity to help and Arbus's willingness to see her subjects unmasked, yet has neither Smith's moral outrage nor Arbus's moral outrageousness. Resolutely apolitical, Mark does not warn about freaks or hector for reform. She is our resident 35mm anthropologist, sending back revelations from the fringes of what is called normal life." (Mary Ellen accepts the definition, but adds that she also works a lot in 2 1/4.)

The other polarity in Mary Ellen Mark's world is between the US and India. Her first trip to Bombay was in 1969. I feel at home

there," she says, "in a strange way, it's where I belong." On her second day in India she took some photographs in a small travelling circus: 'There was a huge trained hippopotamus, whose entire act was walking around in a tutu and eating cotton candy." But only after twenty years and several other photography projects in India did this first encounter mature into a major project. Eventually, in 1989, Mary Ellen travelled around India for six months, spotting, following and photographing 18 itinerant circuses.

When I saw these photographs as part of a retrospective exhibition in Paris, I felt that they were particularly suitable to represent MEM'S work in PHOTOGRAPHERS INTERNATIONAL. We had an exchange of fax messages and telephone conversations:

Frank Horvat (from Paris, by fax) : In your exhibition, the Indian Circus stands out very strongly. Not that the rest of your work is less powerful, or that the Circus series is fundamentally different;

but this body of work appears to me as a fulfillment ‑ so that from here I can go back to the previous work and understand it better. Someone said that every work of art, that is really new and original, throws a new light on all works created before. Do you agree? Should one look at this project as a milestone in your itinerary?

Mary Ellen Mark (from New York, by telephone): Every project on which one spends time and thought is a milestone. It's true that the Indian Circus is something that I had wanted to do for a very long time.

H: What makes me think of it as a milestone — or as a turning point — is that it's completely beyond "concerned photography".

M: Do you mean that it's not political? I have been moving away from the photo essay as a form of magazine photography, like what LIFE used to publish in the Fifties and Sixties. I never try to build a sequence of images in order to prove a point, or to get what magazine editors would call a "traditional photo‑story". Instead, I try to make a series of images that can each stand alone, without explanation.

H: Because you feel that photo‑journalism, in the LIFE style of the

Fifties and Sixties, has become inadequate to describe the reality

we live in?

M: I believe that the conventional picture story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, has been over used and that many people have become immune to its effect. Also, unfortunately, there is much less space now in magazines given to serious imagery. So one strong image is often all there is room for. But I continue to believe that a strong individual photograph can convey all the surprise, the fantasy, the irony, the sensuality, the tenderness or the sadness that we feel when confronted with real life. This is what I like in the great photographs of Eugene Smith, Cartier‑Bresson or Robert Frank. A good photograph is like a metaphor, meaning more than it shows, reminding the spectator of experiences in his own life or in his own imagination.

H: This is exactly what I feel about the Indian Circus photographs.

To me they are very sexy.

M: Sexy? I would prefer to say sensual. But talking about them now makes me feel sad. Because it's all past. It was such beautiful experience. I would like it to begin all over again.