When I first became a photojournalist in the early 1960s, I made demands on picture editors. "Give me a difficult subject," I asked. "Assign me to an emotional situation where a photographer isn't wanted." What I was doing was defining a factor that still gives a woman a professional edge.
In last issue's column I called that factor nurturing. Once considered a woman's primary role, nurturing skills enable our two most famous women magazine photographers, Annie Leibovitz and Mary Ellen Mark, to win their subjects' trust and ease the path to a subject's private domain; in the process, the photographers can create startling depictions of the heaven and hell of a social class.
The skill is evident in two apparently disparate photographs: Leibovitz's ironic view of Ivana and Donald Trump, taken at the Plaza Hotel in 1988, and Mark's portrait of the Damm family taken in Los Angeles in 1987 for a Life magazine essay on the homeless.
Both pictures are well‑posed, although Mark's is less obviously staged: a photojournalist is paid to catch life without adulterations (although even Eugene Smith's greatest pictures were carefully arranged and lit). While Mark's intelligent composition signals the picture's message, it is the gestures of her subjects that trigger its universal appeal: the man protectively supporting the woman while the older daughter cups the cheek of her sad younger brother. Such an emotional display evokes a refrain common during the Depression: "We ain't got much but we got each other…"
Leibovitz's orchestration of the Trumps is as flamboyant as their life in the 1980s. Every object in their room, even Donald's stark black tuxedo, glows with affluence. He eyes the camera with a weighted sense of ownership, his arms and legs crossed. Across a damask‑draped table, complete with champagne and fluted glasses, before an elaborate rococo fireplace with gilded Cupids holding countless flickering candles, Ivana is as studied as the naked bronze statues towering behind them. Long bare legs splayed below a shimmering strapless dress, elbow crooked with a hand spread on her hip, head tilted back with a careful smile, she proudly appears as Donald's prize possession. The irony of her stance becomes apparent when we see the image of Marla Maples on the opposite page. Taken in 1990, Marla on a rooftop in spiked silver heels, her long legs ending in a molten tone bathing suit, her blond hair flying, she seems as grandly statuesque and stable as the surrounding pewter/silver skyscrapers.
It's Mark and Leibovitz's intimacy with their subjects, especially the women, that allows them to create such a powerful social theme. Ivana isn't flirting with the photographer, but she is showing off. Even the masculine head of the Damm family came to trust Mark so completely he was willing to openly show his feelings for his distressed partner without any embarrassment.
Might a man approach these subjects differently? One man I asked about it replied with his own grievances about women's new rights. He did press the need to go beyond sexual stereotypes, but concluded that my position was biased. Right. What else could it be?
But in truth, I can't answer the question without asking a lot of men how they feel about it. I'll do that here: I invite the men photographers reading this to study the images of Mark and Leibovitz ‑both celebrated an anniversary exhibit and a book in 1991: Mary Ellen Mark, 25 Years, from Bullfinch Press, and Photographs, Annie Leibovitz, 1970‑1990, published by Harper Collins. Let me know how you would handle the subjects they've photographed; tell me about the differences you imagine there would be in your approach and in your final photograph. Do you believe that the nurturing factor plays a part and makes a difference? Let me hear from you.