British journal of photography
caputring the human condition
From down and outs to the latest Levi's ads, Mary Ellen Mark has photographed it all. Michael hallett talks with the photographer, whose retropective Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years opens this weekend at the Royal Photographic Society, Bath
Jule 22 1993
Written by Michael Hallett
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark




Mary Ellen Mark's photographs speak volumes. This series of black-and-white images form part of her major retrospective - Mary Ellen Mark; 25 years - which goes on show this weekend at the RPS, Bath. Here are not just some of her most powerful images, but new unseen work from her recent, six month project on the Indian Circus.

Her images are memorable, Ward 81, published in 1979, is of the life in a mazimum security ward in the Oregon State Mental Hospital, with Mark living in ard for 36 days to obtain her photographs. Other series include Mother Teresa's Mission of Chartiy, Heroin Addicts - London, Homeless and Streetwise. Her series Falkland Road, Prostitutes of Bombay is part of a long fascination with India since her frist visit in 1968.

Mary is a social documentarty photographer, a photojournalist. Her work deals principally with the themes of poverty, homelessness and illness. She has been described by Vicki Goldberg as 'our resident 35 millimetre anthropologist, sending back revelations from the fringes of what is called normal life'. Mark observes: 'I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in life. I'm always on their side...I find them more human maybe.' It is the human condition which is the true subject of her photographs.

Mark was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 20 March 1940. She received for BFA in painting and art history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962, and completed her MA in photojournalism at the Annenberg School of Communications, Universtiy of Pennsylvania, two years later. Besides her personal photography her work has been published in Life , the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, Vanity Fair, the Sunday times and Independent magazines, Paris Match and Stern . Her commerical work insludes advertising pictures, celebrity portraits and publicity stills for such films as Apocalypse Now, Silkwood, Ragtime and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

'I work as a magazine photographer so I do al kinds of assignments. My personal photography over the years has been photographing people who are not known.' For Mark, magazines provide a living. She is a pragmatist. 'Documentary photography is essential but it does not necessarily sell,' and observes that with the poor state of the economy magazines are now much more careful. These space restrictions hamper mark's work even though she is not interested in producing the traditional story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Mark uses pictures to set the tone as well as tell the story. What are her priorities? 'Definitely the single picture. It always has been. I am not interested in using photojournalism as the classic style of picture telling. When I have been given an assignment with a documentary style to think of, I look for a series of single images that are strong. It i much more interesting to do soemthig where you can do several single images. I think of a group of images form the point of view of the photographer. It is a number of single images which provide a powerful portfolio, a point of view.'

The development of an idea is an essential element in any creative individual. 'They are just part of your make-up. Just you. Obsessions. Things that you think about for a long time. The circus in India was something I wanted to do for years and suddenly I had the opportunity to do it.' mark attempts to choose assignments in which she has a special interest, though the photographs serve another function. 'I'm trying to please myself. That is the big criteria, though in a sense I don't take pictures just for myself. I take images I think other people will want to see. I want as many people to see them as possible.'

Mark's influences are catholic and include W Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier Bresson, Helmet Newton and Diane Arbus. Although they have shared themes, Mark claims her subjects always willingly pose for her becasue they want to be noticed, and that she photographs people to get closer to them and facilitates a greater understanding of their lives.

'I prefer to spend my time with people I feel positive about. There are exceptions. The extreme political groups are an example, but all my life I have been drawn to photograph people I like. I still like strong subjects. I particularly want my pictures to have a sense of power in them.'

Viewers to the retropective could be forgiven for believing Mark works exclusively in black and white. 'I feel I am a stronger black-and-white photographer, I see in black and white and that is the photography that I am most drawn to. Though I have just dont an assignment in colour for an English advertising agency for Levi's. It was a whole other way of working and thinking. I thought in colour. I worked in colour. It was meant to be in colour. It was about colour. What I have always found impossible to do is shoot in both black and white and colour. It is difficult to make your brain do things at the same time. I enjoyed the challenge of the Levi's assignment.'

Bartle, Bogle & Hegarty's three month Levi's campaign is currently appearing in a variety of publications including NME, Select, Arena, The Face and Empire . Mark's photographs are glittering, extravagant, and the style of real people she portrays is downright vulgar. But that was teh intention. Very different from the classic Brandt iamges used in the previous campaign. 'I could work with real people. A lot of the commerical work I have done in the past is dealing with real people. I can bring what I have learned as a documentary photographer to that. I approached it in the way I would appraoch photographing real people. I tried to make strong portraits. I had worked in Miami in the early 80s, and in many ways I approached it in the same way as I did then.'

Photographer Greg Heisler puts Mark's attitude to work into a perpective. 'More than anyone else in the business, she is literally obsessed with her work, obsessed with photography, obsessed with the pursuit of vision, and obsessed with the disparity between what she wants to do and what she ends up doing - the disparity between the fantasy of the assignmet and how it ends up turning out. Her obsession with other photographers and how disappointing they can be. I mean she is obsessed with every aspect of photography.' An obsession- but a healthy one.