November 1991
Alice Gray
Photo Editor: Virginia Wadsworth

Mary Ellen Mark, Andrew Walker, 101 Years Old, with His Granddaughter, Lakeisha, Cleveland, Ohio, 1990, gelatin‑silver print, 15 by 15 inches. ICP Midtown.

For photographer Mary Ellen Mark, the world has been a global village since she began documenting the lives of its inhabitants 25 years ago. This retrospective of her black‑and‑white photographs illustrates Mark's vocation as a photographer of the unfamous from all corners of the planet. These narrative images speak of the silent and the unseen, and sweep the viewer up into a world that is at once shockingly foreign and poignantly familiar.

Whether she is photographing heroin addicts in England, Mother Theresa's dying patients in India, or the homeless in the United States, Mark adapts her lens to approximate the perspective of her subjects, bringing the reality of their lives into focus. In Retarded Women II Cottolegno Hospital, Turin (1990) the woman in the foreground is cropped at the head and the knees so that her torso dominates the image, and the viewer must enter her space. As in many of Mark's photographs of people in confinement, the perspective is skewed; the long hall behind the women extends at a distinct angle and forces the viewer to adjust to the unfamiliar.

Mark's vision is not a restricted view of other cultures, classes, or states of being; there are no stereotypes on display here. In Shirley with Her Son Ricky at the Gilbert Hotel, Hollywood, California (1987), the compelling nature of this portrait of the homeless supersedes its social context and renders invalid those margins that separate Shirley, Ricky, and other "outsiders" from mainstream society.

Although Mark's film stills of Brando, Buñuel, and Fellini sit uneasily between photographs of ordinary outsiders, they segue into Mark's most recent project, her photographs of circus performers in India. These portraits capture all the vicissitudes in the life of a community that is both celebrated and obscure. Mark has found a perfect subject for her investigation of, and reverence for, the extraordinary and the commonplace. Illuminating the lives of the unknown was also the prevalent theme of two other concurrent ICP shows. Edward Serotta's "Out of the Shadows: A Photographic Portrait of Jewish Life in Central Europe Since the Holocaust" is an inspiring and haunting documentary of the European Jews' struggle to preserve the traditions of communities that barely escaped annihilation under Hitler and were denied official recognition under the Communists. Lively, stirring portraits of people dancing, eating, studying, and celebrating their faith offer ample evidence of a flourishing culture. The ghosts of the past, however, seem to overwhelm the buoyant life of the present in Serotta's architectural photographs of the ancient synagogues, cemeteries, and Jewish centers that are now sparsely populated or attended.

Children of War, Children of Peace, an exhibition spanning the career of photojournalist Robert Capa from 1932 to 1954, provides both context and precedent for Mark's and Serotta's work. While covering five wars and their aftermath in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Capa was drawn to those most innocent and invisible victims, the children. He was most adept at capturing them in moments of fleeting joy, surprise, or anguish. His photographs redefined the significance of subject matter in documentary photography and taught an influential lesson: every face and every image, no matter how unrenowned, has a story to tell.

‑Alice Gray