Jessica Lange
Spring 2007
By Mary Ellen Mark

Jessica Lange's photographs are extremely atmospheric and graphically beautiful. The images are very intelligent, but beyond that, they have true heart and emotion.

Jessica is, of course, an extraordinary actress. I have had the privilege to photograph her several times over many years: first when she was a young mother with her baby daughter, Alexandra, and then again on the sets of films: Tootsie, Big Fish. And along with her acting career, Jessica is an exceptional and truly admirable human being.

She is also a very gifted photographer. When I heard that Jessica made pictures I somehow knew that they would be strong. Jessica's photographs very much reflect her personality. They are delicate, but powerful at the same time. They are loving, warm, and extremely poetic.

She waits for the perfect moment, when everything falls into place, to make an image. Consider her photograph of a man on a carnival ride in Mexico: he is caught running, in an ideal position to make a complete frame. Another photograph‑not included here‑is of a caged bear in Romania. The bear is so anthropomorphic: you feel his entrapment and long to open his cage and set him free. This is how a good image can move you: you want to jump inside the picture to set things right.

I have been going to Mexico for years, and I find Jessica's photographs of Mexico to be absolutely true to the country's spirit. Her image of a dog perched on the roof, perfectly framed by sky and electrical wires, immediately takes me back to the streets near the zócalo in Oaxaca. All of Jessica's circus images make me long for the sounds and smells of the Mexican circus grounds.

There are two approaches to documentary photography. One is engagement: an exchange between the photographer and the subject. In most cases of engaged work, the subject is very much aware of the camera. (For instance, my circus pictures in India are mostly an exchange between my subjects and myself; other examples are Sally Mann's "At Twelve" and "Immediate Family" series.)

The other approach to documentary photography is for the photographer to become anonymous, a fly on the wall. (Helen Levitt's work is a good example of this method.) Jessica's position as a photographer is definitely the anonymous observer. I find this very interesting, because as an actress, she must constantly engage both her fellow actors and her audience. As a photographer, she has chosen the opposite standpoint.

I have asked Jessica if taking pictures is a kind of release for her. She says: "Absolutely. It's a way of being able to work completely alone without having to depend on anyone else. Because acting is collaborative, you have to depend on so many others."

But Jessica cannot escape her cinematic influences completely. One of the things that makes these pictures so effective is the sense of cinema in them: the atmosphere, dramatic lighting, and brilliantly caught moments that seem to be derived from narratives. The one‑legged cowboy conjures up a modern‑day Western movie. How did he lose his leg? What is the back story? Or the couple sleeping on the grass in Minnesota. Like many of Jessica's photographs, it has the iconic feel of a romantic film that we will never forget.