March 1982
By Trevor Gett


"The good thing about being a photo‑journalist is that you can drop in and see how lots of other people live," claims Mary Ellen Mark. And her range of subjects over the dozen years since she began contributing in‑depth features to Look magazine corroborates this.

When I met this striking, dark‑haired American photographer in London, I discovered how she has survived in a highly competitive field during the seventies when Life and many other mass‑circulation magazines disappeared from the newsstands, and how a chance encounter gave the initial impetus to her career...

MEM: I happened to meet Patricia Carbine, then a managing editor of Look when photographing for a university alumni magazine in Philadelphia in 1968. She was impressed by the way I was working there and invited me to call on her in New York. I did so after photographing in Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship; at first she put me on to assignments begun by others. Then about a year later she approved my idea of covering the production of Fellini's film Satyricon in Rome.

While I was doing that I heard about a program for the breaking of heroin addiction among the young in London at St Clement's Drug Unit. I contacted Pat who told me to proceed to England and assigned Mary Simons to write the text.

TG: Besides majoring in photography at the Annenberg School of Communications, you had studied painting and art history. But your professional experience was limited so Miss Carbine must have had a great faith in your potential.

MEM: It was a terrific break and I am appreciative to this day for her trust. It led to a lot of other work, and my pictures subsequently appeared in Life, Time, Paris Match, Stern, Esquire, Popular Photography, Ms and Geo. It's interesting that the opportunity came from a woman.

Then, and it's still true, it was always more difficult for women in most professions. You have to prove yourself continuously, and even now with more women in photography, it's no easier. Editors still think twice before giving me a tough assignment of the kind I like.

The rooftop garden of the comedian's Manhattan home was chosen as backdrop to this fun shot of Woody Allen which appeared in the New York Times in 1979. Many movie stars have posed for Mary Ellen Mark.

TG: Yet surely a feminine approach to the lives of other women is an asset? In your case I believe it makes visible the interior feelings and emotional states of your subjects.

MEM: Coincidentally, or maybe not, much of what I've done has been about women. I feel very comfortable photographing them because I understand them. And if I had done a mental hospital story on men rather than women I couldn't have achieved the close contact that affected me and my pictures on the Ward 81 book. The writer and I shared a room at the Oregon State Mental Hospital, near a locked ward in the most dangerous section. The patients knew what we were doing and became very involved. Those we avoided, because the staff told us they were dangerous, felt left out and upset so we managed to include them.

"What the English are doing about heroin" was the title of Mary Ellen Mark a feature in Look magazine, 1969. She states: "These pictures weren't meant to say anything except how freaked out and how horrible it can all be.

TG: Do you have mixed feelings about intruding into these very private worlds?

MEM: The timing was such in that case that I knew it was not wrong. At once I found they were anxious to tell their story, to say to the outside world, "We exist, this is how we are."

If people make it clear they don't want to be photographed, I always respect their wishes. I have releases for pictures that have been published, signed by relatives in the case of Ward 81.

TG: When you did the series on New• York bars a few years back, was there
any resistance of this nature?

MEM: At first the women in one of the bars were reluctant because they thought they might lose their jobs if they were recognised in my pictures. My policy was to speak to the owner of every bar to tell them what I would do if they gave their permission. It was essential to have the bartenders on my side because they set the whole tempo and mood of a bar. If there's trouble they know how to handle it.

TG: When you enter such a place, your flash must announce your intentions. Is this inhibiting?

MEM: After a few nights the novelty wears off, then I get to work. They almost forget you're around so life goes on, they're not posing. If they look at the camera, sometimes the picture will work and other times will not, that's a mysterious phenomenon.

In 1976 Mary Ellen Mark and a writer lived close to the patients of "Ward 81" for a book of the same name which depicted life in a mental hospital in Oregon.

TG: Is it fair to say that on the whole you prefer a controlled situation?

MEM: Yes, I'm not great at grabbing pictures, that's a separate talent. Some people like Robert Frank and Charles Harbutt are fantastic street‑shooters, they can anticipate but that's not where my ability lies. It's necessary to realise your limitations. I would love to have that skill, as I would love to take portraits like Irving Penn. But if you try to spread yourself too thin and be like everybody else, you become like them and lose your own originality.

In the beginning you can't help being influenced but it's important to be yourself. I never take it as a compliment when my pictures are compared to the work of others.

As beautifully composed as a Picasso circus sketch, this picture of an Indian itinerant performer was taken in Bombay by Mary Ellen Mark.

TG: Do you plan an essay in advance, and devise specific shots?

MEM: No, I go along and see what happens. You have to look, feel and think, then formulate a point of view while you're there. The more you get into any project, the more you see. You become supersensitive to everything, and see many things you might not normally notice. This leads to unusual pictures like the close‑up of a wrinkled hand on the table at Roseland where old people go to dance and have some fun. That picture speaks of old age.

TG: Like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Rose­Land movie, your pictures seem compassionate but never patronising. Do you know the film?

MEM: Yes, and I respect the way Ruth's writing brought out the essence of that place, the sadness beneath the fun. I also spent six months at Miami to depict old people doing things, not just vegetating alone in a room.

TG: Although you have done some fine stories at home, and brought others back from Italy, England, Northern Ireland and South East Asia, India seems to dominate your imagery. How did this come about?

MEM: In 1969 I went there on my way to take royal wedding pictures in Nepal, and was immediately knocked out. Later I did the American hippies story and was at an age where I could fit into their life but could not relate to those who merely freaked out and misunderstood the Indian culture.

TG: With your comfortable American middle class background, were you repelled by the squalor of the subcontinent?

MEM: Travelling around in India, I found that even in the poorest area huts may look dirty from the outside but when you go in you find everything is well ordered. The Indians bathe, they're clean. You can be on a crowded bus with them and they don't smell. Go down in the New York subway in summer and it's another thing.

TG: What about the danger one associates with Bombay's Falkland Road where you spent long periods doing the book of that name for Thames and Hudson? It is, after all, notorious as a street of caged prostitutes on display like animals.

MEM: Despite first impressions, in a way life there is far more gentle and less dangerous than in places where hookers are found in the West. The women are not junkies, some madams even forbid smoking; and they're not controlled by pimps.

TG: From your book it is apparent that life for them is less lurid than one imagines.

MEM: Well, I wanted to show they have a normal domestic life outside working hours. It reminded me of a school dormitory since some are very young. There are many parallels we can draw between ourselves and these women with their vanities and vulnerabilities. I wanted to show them as human beings.

TG: What are some of the qualities they revealed?

MEM: They don't have a sense of shame and are not hypocritical; they admit they're selling their bodies for survival and better living conditions. I found them warm, intelligent, and good to be with as friends.

TG: Why was there antagonism at first, in the form of hurled insults and garbage?

Because I went about it the wrong way. I was shooting from the street for a day or two at a time instead of staying inside from morning to night as I eventually did for three months in 1978. That way I got to know them and understand their life. I don't speak Hindi so I needed a translator.

TG: Would you explain how you came to enter that very different India of Mother Theresa?

MEM: The editors of Life asked me to photograph her in Calcutta because she had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I didn't hesitate since that had been one of my ambitions for years, and afterwards I decided to return and do a book about her wonderful work.

There are indeed many Indias and I had to resist the temptation to photograph the exoticism. My concern is with the sociological rather than with beautiful people in turbans and saris.

1972 found Mary Ellen Mark photographing the people of Appalachia in Harlan, Kentucky for Ms magazine. "I realised she didn't even look at him when he was holding the gun at her head. There were two people living happily together, but it looked to me as if they were totally unaware of each other's personalities.

TG: Everybody at the London exhibition at the Olympus gallery was fascinated by your use of colour, showing a less opulently hued India. I presume this is a conscious attempt to play down the exoticism you just mentioned. Before we part, could you briefly say how you achieved this colour?

MEM: I used single lens reflex cameras, Olympus and Nikon for interiors, and a Leica rangefinder on the street and in Falkland Road's Olympia cafe. There, because of the low light levels, I set the Leica on a Leitz Tabletop tripod and used Ektachrome 400 to record the overall scene. In this large space, strobe would have given a black background but it bounced off the walls of the small rooms with a nice effect when Kodachrome 64 was in the camera. Outside, Ektachrome 400 created the right twilight mood and compensated for the fading light. I was shooting mostly with 24 and 35mm lenses, occasionally a 50, handholding where possible..