Black & White
Spotlight
Mary Ellen Mark
December 2003
By Shawn O'Sullivan
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

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On the Cover: Mary Ellen Mark, Miguel Angel and Marco Antonio Peralta.

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Photograph by Marcela Taboada
For a 10‑page feature story on Mark and her new book, Twins, turn to page 76.

Mary Ellen Mark, like many of her photographs, is an American original. If art, as Shakespeare wrote, is "the mirror held up to nature," then Mary Ellen Mark's mirror reflects human nature. She has documented people around the world for almost 40 years, moving easily between the world of photojournalism, the documentary portrait and, she says, "somewhere in between." Along the way, she has become one of the masters of photography, her images held by museums and collectors worldwide.

In Mark's oeuvre, no subject is taboo. She has no fear of venturing into the shadowed corners of society, the fringes of civilized life, focusing her camera on runaway kids, drug addicts, the homeless, welfare mothers, prostitutes. Since she began shooting, she has sought out people whose stories moved her personally ‑ people who might otherwise remain invisible were it not for her pictures. Her compassion allows her to respect them no matter what their situation. Indeed, the word respect comes up often in conversations with her. "I prefer pictures that are about the person and not the photographer. I think a person can be revealed in a portrait, but I think that it takes respect, and interest in the person, not in yourself. I think that the great portrait photographers like Penn, Arbus and Avedon have a sense of who the person is."

Photography was part of Marks aesthetic early on. Even as a child she took photographs and was always fascinated with pictures of her family. "I remember I would come home from school and pick up the family albums and look through them for hours and hours." Perhaps she was seeking to learn something about the lives of people through pictures, something she does still to this day.

 Mark grew up in Philadelphia, where she received a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania and later a masters from the Annenberg School for Communications, where she took the one course they offered in photography. Knowing that this was how she wanted to spend her life, she then traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship, and her career in photojournalism commenced. "I started photographing in the early 1960s," she recounts. "That was an ideal time to be a documentary photographer. Then the magazines wanted photojournalism. Now they want advertising." Although she bemoans the decline of the magazines willing to underwrite photojournalism, she does not linger there.. . she merely self assigns and moves on. I always want to do personal work. I didn't become a photographer to be a slick commercial photographer. I became a photographer to become a humanist, to tell the truth and to tell a story about people."

Mark moved to New York in 1967 and began taking pictures on the street, garnering many assignments for magazines, shooting both documentary work and celebrities. "With celebrity photography it's more difficult," she states with resignation. "It's really hard to get to the heart. They have so many people around them, handling them." Although much of Mark's commercial work is in color, she prefers black and white. "My heart's in black and white. It has to do with a direct essence of something."

Shooting on One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, she talked her way into the locked women's ward of a state mental institution in Oregon, where she documented the inmates of Ward 81, one of her first major projects. Mark continued to work as a still photographer on movie productions, and it was while working on the set of Milos Forman's Ragtime that she met her future husband, filmmaker Martin Bell.

Mark worked at length in India, photographing subjects as diverse as Mother Teresa and the prostitutes of Falkland Road. She also returned to do a story on traveling Indian circuses, complete with dwarves and performing animals. "I adore all animals," Mark says. "I love giraffes and elephants and kangaroos, but dogs... I especially love dogs." Animals are as esteemed on her list as people.

Mark does not shoot and run. She keeps in touch with many of her subjects, often returning years later to discover where they are in life, as with the Damn Family, a homeless family she photographed living out of their car, and "Tiny" Erin Blackwell, one of the Seattle street kids whom she returned to photograph again many times. Streetwise, depicting the hard life of runaways in Seattle, was the inspiration for the Academy Award‑nominated documentary with the same name‑made in collaboration with her husband, who was the film's director.

Mark and Bell have since worked together on many projects, the most recent of which is Twins. In 1998, Mark's propensity for carnival led her to Twinsburg, Ohio, where each year a festival of Twins Days is held ‑ a gathering of twins (and the occasional triplets) from all over. Mark knew then and there that she would return, and began planning this project, for which she used up all her savings. "I've always photographed twins. From the time I started to photograph, I've been fascinated with twins because it's such an unusual situation to be a twin. It's amazing that there is another person exactly like you ‑ or not so exactly, but almost like you." The desire to capture the nuance of this sameness/difference prompted her to work super large. Well versed in any format, she moves easily from 35mm to 6x9 and larger, and had been experimenting with the 20x24‑inch Polaroid for about five years. This was the camera she chose.

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Don and Dave Wolf

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Cover of Mary Ellen Mark's new book Twins, with foreword and interviews by Mary Ellen Mark. Published by Aperture. Clothbound, 75 tritone images, 10 1 /2x1 3 inches, 96 pages. For further information, log on to www.aperture.org or call 800.929.2323.

Mark and Bell returned together in 2000 and set up a studio. True to the adage that "if you build it they will come," Twins from all walks of life posed for her camera. The images are compelling, the large format defining each subtle difference in the twins, posed in costumes of their own devising. All wear matching outfits, as if to say, "See if you can tell who's who," although all are not identical. Mark captures the irony of being a twin, the love, the competition, a bond that death cannot break. She even photographed a twin holding a portrait of his deceased brother. Many embrace or touch each other ‑ hands held, pinkies locked, an arm around a waist, a head leaning in.

 Bell filmed a documentary that will be screened at the Kennedy/ Boesky Gallery in New York during an exhibition of Mark's prints, as well as at the New York Film Festival. "He has helped me enormously. He's amazing at lighting," she enthuses. "Working with 20x24 Polaroid is very complex. You're making your print at the same time you are making your picture. You can't fix anything in the darkroom. We had to figure out how to flag it and shoot it, depending on what people wore. We'd usually get it within the first try."
The edition of original prints is extremely small, with one master set of the 75 images in the book, which she hopes will be acquired as a whole, and between four and seven additional prints of each image. Because there are no negatives, each image is one‑of-a‑kind. Once these prints are sold, either to museums or private collectors, they will be gone. And although Mark is herself a collector of sorts ‑ of images, of people, of animals, of stories ‑ she has no compunction about letting go. "I'm not that attached. When you do a painting and sell it, it's gone." She believes the images should be out there for others to see, keeping scans of her prints for archival purposes.

Mark has received countless awards, including the prestigious Cornell Capa award from the International Center of Photography. Twins, published by Aperture, will be her 13th book. "My heart and soul are with reality. The pictures of real people are the ones that live on." Portraiture at best contains a life within a life, a moment of personal reflection on both the part of the photographer and the subject, an interaction that might or might not end in revelation. And revelation is what Mary Ellen Mark is after ‑ a glimpse into the heart and soul of her fellow man. ‑Shown O'Sullivan

• PRINT INFORMATION All are 20x24‑inch black and white Polaroid prints.

• CONTACT INFORMATION

Marianne Boesky Gallery/ Kennedy Boesky Photographs 535 West 22nd Street New York NY 10011 Phones 212.741.0963 Fax: 212.680.9897 Web: wvvw.marianneboesky gallery. com Mary Ellen Mark's website: www. maryellenmark. com

• OTHER BOOKS Photo Poche: Mary Ellen Mark (Nathan, 20021 Mary Ellen Mark 55 (Phaidon, 20011 Mary Ellen Marks American Odyssey (Aperture, 1999) A Cry for Help (Simon and Schuster, 1996) Mary Ellen Marks Portraits (Motto Fotografia, 1995) Mary Ellen Mark: Indian Circus (Chronicle, 1993) Mary Ellen Marks 25 Years (Bu(finch Press, 1991) The Photo Essay (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990) Streetwise (Aperture, 1988) Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity (The Friends of Photography, 1985) Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) Ward 8/ (Simon and Schuster, 1979) Passport )Lustrum Press, 1974)


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Jennifer and Emily Carp

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Cayla and Mylee Simmermon

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Spencer and Skyler Szybkowski

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Tabitha and Tiffany Good

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Jeremy and Jacob Tyler

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Paula and Polly Wasdin

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Pete and Art Beardsley

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