An American Photographer in the Icelandic Wilderness
By Krista Mahr
Photos by Mary Ellen Mark / Portrait by Pall Stefánsson
Mary Ellen Mark is marooned in a woolly sea of panicked sheep. Mostly they are lambs, leaping and bleating their way around the ring. Warmly dressed children with preternaturally rosy cheeks, teenage girls in itchy sweaters, and German tourists in sensible raingear straddle the frantic animals, grabbing their ears to read which sheep goes where.
The American wades through the melee, her big Mamiya 7 with its external flash clunking against the layers of scarves padding her chest. The ear flaps of her bomber hat are pulled down against the chill of the early fall morning. Save for her signature black braids sticking out from under the cap, she is, here at 65 degrees North, anonymous.
"It's like a game," Mark says, decoding the flushed cheeks, the traditional sweaters, the Germans. "You should come in. It's great. And it smells good."
That's one way to put it. We are in a valley in northwest Iceland, where thousands of horses and sheep will converge this morning in a ring the size of a tennis court. It's September ‑ round up season ‑ and the American photographer Mary Ellen Mark is in Iceland to shoot the annual sorting of horses and sheep into their respective farmers' pens. Since the 1960s, Mark has been one of the best‑known documentary photographers in the United States, her name synonymous with a genre that changed the way the world looks at pictures. The sheep seem unaware that there is greatness in their midst.
Earlier in the morning, Mark was not sold on the idea of mingling with thousands of large farm animals facing captivity after half a year of freedom.
"I'm not sure I'm going to get anything here," she said to no one in particular, chin down as she tinkered with the camera hanging on a strap from her neck in the dirt parking lot. "This is long‑lens stuff."
She looked strangely out of sorts picking and choosing technical bits and pieces from the camera bags. Though it was just eight o'clock in the morning, the horse round up was in full swing. "I'm afraid of horses...," and shaking her head, "I'm not the outdoors type."
Though Mark has traveled from India to Mexico for her work, she is a child of urban America ‑Philadelphia, to be exact. Today, New York City is her base. She lives and works out of her Soho studio, Falkland Road, named after her book documenting the lives of prostitutes in Bombay.
In the round‑up ring, a knot of black horses ran in a circle, avoiding the men that stood with arms extended like Arctic scarecrows, whooping and shouting to direct the animals into their owner's pen. Two horses trotted through the gate and snap! The gate shut, and the horses wandered to the end of the 20‑foot pen to stand far away from the offending humans.
By the time I looked back to see how Mark was faring, she had overcome her hesitation and was squinting into the viewfinder of her camera, an inch away from a big horse's broad nose.
Mark started coming to Iceland in the 1980s, after two Icelandic photographers, Pall Stefánsson of Atlantica and Iceland Review magazines, and Ragnar Axelsson of daily newspaper Morgunbladid, enrolled in one of her workshops in Florida. The three hit it off, and Mark has been visiting the country since.
"There's a lot of weird stuff going on here," Mark says, looking around. "It's a quirky place." Though she's worked in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, she doesn't find the big Scandinavian countries as visually interesting as Iceland or the North's other offbeat member, Finland.
This trip, Mark has not only plunged into the world of the réttir. She is taking portraits of four artists working here; giving a lecture in Reykjavik with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell; photographing at a school for disabled children; shooting a hazing tradition at Icelandic high schools; and shooting a high school dance.
"Some of the teenagers got very angry that I wouldn't take their picture," Mark tells me, referring to the dance. "One girl kicked me."
Fielding mild abuse from feisty Icelandic teenagers is a byproduct of Mark's immersive working style. The five weeks in 1976 that she spent living in a women's psychiatric hospital in Oregon convinced her that she liked working in smaller, limited spaces. She has continued to work immersively since then.
There are a few things you notice about Mark that have grown out of her method. One, she is a chameleon. Standing at the réttir, Mark's short frame, black boots, Diesel jeans and army green jacket nearly disappear into the fabric of the day. Two, she is an observer. She leans back to watch people in action, looking at them from under the bottom rim of her dark rectangular eyeglasses. She watches while her subject is involved in talking to someone else ‑ discreet, thorough, focused.
And three, Mark is an enthusiast. Today, it is not the horses or the sheep that are at the receiving end of her enthusiasm. It is the Icelandic sheep dog. Since leaving Reykjavik this morning, Mark has been waiting to see the famous Icelandic sheep dogs ‑ a smallish pure breed actively used on farms throughout Iceland today ‑ doing their thing.
"I love the sheepdogs," she raves. "They're amazing. They're dogs with a job."
'THE SHEEP ARE COMING!"
Down the dirt road that winds into the empty, dry hills, a distant cacophony of the sheeps’ "meehhh" is gathering force. The morning onlookers ‑ the farmers, the tourists, the city families here for the day, and us ‑ stand at the edge of a bridge over which hundreds of lambs are running toward us.
The first white crust of winter sits tauntingly on a low roll of mountains nearby. This is just the beginning, the snow warns us. (I will remind you that it is only September.) Farmers walk around in blue coveralls tucked into green knee‑high rubber boots, keeping warm with white plastic cups of coffee and occasional swigs from glass flasks of caramel‑colored alcohol.
A black dog darts wildly back and forth on the road, intent on the task at hand of keeping the running sheep in a neat column headed for the round‑up ring.
As the lambs begin to pass ‑ leaping, tripping, freaking out ‑ Mark bends her knees and starts to shoot. The Mamiya's flash pokes out into the unseasonably cold air, and she is, away from New York and London and even Reykjavik, just a witness, another onlooker absorbed in the drama of life outside the city.
The black dog chases one rebel sheep that has broken free from the pack along the riverbank. It is a classic pursuit, ending when the sheep, at a loss for any alternative, wades into the freezing river. The dog watches the sheep struggle against the icy current and promptly finds something else to do. The men running the show are not so quick to cut their losses. A farmer goes after it on horseback, dragging the spent animal with water streaming off its saturated coat out of the glacial runoff and onto a rock, where it collapses.
Mark has stopped shooting, and stands on the bank to watch the spectacle with the rest of us. "Poor thing, is he dead?" she asks, looking sympathetically to where the exhausted animal lies. Then, turning her head to a new target, "Did you see that black dog?"
[short bio] Mary Ellen Mark has published her photo essays in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair. She is one of the most celebrated photographers working in the United States today. She has published 15 books, the latest of which, Exposure, came out this year on Phaidon. A collection of 45 years of Mark's iconic images, Exposure took two years to put together at the Falkland Road offices.