In her SoHo loft, Mary Ellen Mark sits on a couch covered with Mexican embroideries and Moroccan pillows. The coffee table is filled with sculptures, mostly carved animals, she collected on her travels. Several Indian glass paintings hang on the wall.
Mary Ellen Mark is working in her SoHo studio -not setting up tripods or adjusting lights but taking phone calls, reviewing her schedule with her assistants, giving an interview. She sits down, catching her breath. "I've overextended myself," she confesses while nervously fingering her long black hair, which is woven into two tight braids. She has been preparing for her retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (up through August 6), featuring a selection of photographs from her recent book, Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey: 1963‑1999.
Mark is best known for the social‑documentary work she has produced while traveling around the globe over the past three decades. Her subjects have included prostitutes in Bombay, heroin addicts in London, famine victims in Ethiopia, and street kids in Seattle. But now, spread out on a table are black‑leather portfolios filled with some of her commercial work, portraits of actors and musicians shot for publications like Rolling Stone and Vogue. One portfolio is opened to sleek pictures of Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Quaid. "While there are exceptions, most celebrity portraits just don't transcend time the way portraits of unknown people do," says Mark, who is 60. "But I have to do these books to get work, so I can do my own work," she explains, "which is what I want to do more than anything."
Just as Mark has forged a dual career photographing the celebrated and the nonfamous, the art she collects focuses on both the eminent and the anonymous. On the one hand, she has an august collection of black‑and‑white photos, a large portion by 20th‑century masters including Berenice Abbott, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Helen Levitt, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, and James VanDerZee. But she also has acquired many objects created by anonymous artists and artisans. Souvenirs from her travels, these pieces include Mexican animal masks, American duck decoys, Moroccan textiles, Icelandic folk art, and Indian glass paintings, not to mention statues and figurines of Hindu gods, toy propeller airplanes, and old circus posters. Hundreds, if not thousands, of objects like these fill her loft, where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, just a block from her studio. (Bell's 1985 documentary, Streetwise, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is based on Mark's photos of Seattle street kids, which she initially created for a story in Life magazine.)
Mark started collecting photographs 15 years ago ‑a few are purchases, some are trades, and others are gifts. "Mostly portraits; lots of women, actually," she says, as if noticing for the first time. Framed and hanging on the walls of her home and studio, the work is playful in parts, with Henri Cartier‑Bresson's three scantily clad, big-bottomed women cavorting on a tiled floor (Alicante, Spain, 1933); Diane Arbus's three chubby ballerinas stuffed in their tutus (Three Circus Ballerinas, New Jersey, 1964); and André Kertész's Satyric Dancer (1926), fancifully posed on a couch. "It's not a vintage print," says Mark of the Kertész, "but it is signed. I can't afford ‑to buy vintage prints." She adds, "Anyway, to me, it's more about the image."
Mark prefers documentary style to the staged images produced by many contemporary artists. "While young photographers work in a postmodern vein, my interest lies more in reality," she says. "The images I take are more about content than an intellectual idea." Among her contemporaries, she admires the work of Graciela Iturbide, who has documented life in and around Oaxaca, Mexico, where Mark teaches photography twice a year. One of Iturbide's works Mark owns, The Sacrifice (1992), pictures a woman holding a dead lamb in one hand and a long knife in the other. "It's part of a Mexican festival where the people kill baby lambs," she says, describing the photo as "spiritual and surreal."
After she has finished showing her collections, Mark sits down in her living room to have her picture taken. She begins to fidget anxiously with some sculptures on a coffee table‑an ungainly duck decoy from Maine, an almost feline carved-wood monkey from Thailand‑then proceeds to unravel her hair from the braids, looking up occasionally to grill the photographer about what kind of lighting and equipment she's using. She's not used to being on the other side of the camera. Portraitist of the known and unknown, the famous and nonfamous, Mark groans, "I hate getting my picture taken."