British Journal of photography
American splendour
Mary Ellen Mark was recently voted the most influential living American woman photographer. She explains her unique perspective on her subjects to Katie Scott, many of whom have become friends.
July 21, 2004
Written by Katie Scott
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


Christopher: mark approached the boy's family after seeing them leave church and following them home. WHo she arrived, she knocked on the door and asked the parents if she could take pictures of their children. Saying not a wor, they shoved them outside and shut the door. Mark doesn't know what happened to this little boy. All Photographs copyright Mary Ellen Mark.

Diamond Settles, South Bronx HELP. Shelter, New York, 1993.

Edward Simmons, South Bronx HELP. Shelter, New York, 1993.

Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington 1983.

Rodeo Clown, Quail Dobbs and Phyllis, Rock Springs, Texas, 1991.

The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987 from American Odyssey.

Jesse Damm, Llano, California, 1995.

'Everyone likes to have pictures of themselves. Not just movie stars.' - Mary Ellen Mark

Vera Antonoro, Rhoda Camprato, and Murray Goldman, Luigi's Italian American Club, Miama, Florida, 1993.

Bruce and Brian Kuzak, 40 year old, Brian older by eights minutes with their nurses, Teresa and Tillie Merriweather, 20 years old, Tillie older by one minutre, 2001.

Riley and Emily Shults, fours years old, Riley older by one minute, 2002.

MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS hide behind the lens. The camera provides a kind of barrier between them and the events they are recording and, in extreme situations, an emotional shield. The camera allows the photographer to remain objective and detached, focusing on their subject without emotionally engaging with them.

Mary Ellen Mark does not advocate this approach. As she famously explains in her book Portaits : 'There's no such thing as being objective on a personal project. If you care about it, then you have to be subjective.'

This attitude is clear as she walks aroudn the exhibition at Manchester Art gallery, which includes works from both her retropective collection American Odyssey and her latest project Twins . Mark recalls the stroies behind each image and ponders the fate of those subjects that she hasn't been able to track down again. But these are the minority- she keeps in touch with many of her subjects.

She first met Tiny when the girl was 14, and the relationship has endured. Mark has returned to Tiny's ever-extedning family time and time again, and both she and her husband - British documentary-film maker Martin Bell - regularly speak to her. Mark and Bell are now friends and confiantes of Tiny, at one point even offering to move her to New York, where they live.

But Tiny rebuffed the suggestion, quipping, 'I ain't going to no school.' Eight children down the line, Tiny admits this may have been the wrong decision, though Mark says, she still has 'many dreams' of a better life.

But this intervention is rare. Mark explains in 'Portraits', thought she becomes 'as much a part of the scene' as her subjects, she will only take upon herself to change the scenery in extreme cases. Mark speaks of only one other occasion, and this was when she believed a young girl, Chrissie Damm, to be suffering chid abuse.

Chrissie will now be in her twenties but Mark frist encountered her in 1987, when she was living in a car along with her mother, stepfather, and brother, Jesse. Mark stayed in touch with the family, returning to photograph them in 1994, when they were squatting in an abandoned ranch. During these intervening years Mark began to suspect that the stepfather was abusing Chrissie, and she took the step of approaching the family's social worker. The social worker rejected Mark;s concerns, but she was told months later that they had been proven horrifically true.

Sympathetic yet unsentimental
Mark felt compelled to act in this case, but she usually adopts a 'sympathetic but unsentimental approach' to her subjects, which allows her to shoot despite the tears, pain and frustration of those in front of her. As Mark writes at the end of American Odyssey: From my earliest days as a photographer, many of my subjects have been on the edge or outside the mianstream of our culture. Some of them were pushed over the edge dur to painful circumstances and some of them manage to survive even with the most unspeakable and unjust obstacles palced in their lives. I've always tried to let my photographs be a voice for people who have less of an opportunity to speak for themselves.'

Taking a photograph serves as recognition of how these people live, and can offer others a glimpse of their lives. But sometimes, Mark takes a photograph simple to hand back to her subject. She says: 'Every one likes to have photographs, she feels she is giving something back for waht they have given her - whether that was years of intimacy or a momentary insight.

Mark says this excahnge is essential to her work, and that hse hunts for it. She is motivated by a genuine fascination with the human condition, as well as a desire not 'to duplicate' past projects. She says in Portraits: 'You could say that you are taking something away from someone's lif. I try not to take advantage of my subjects or to hurt them. Taking pictures is a predatory act... that's hard to deny. It's an aggression...

For example, while working on the Twins project at Ohio's Twinsburg festival, Mark approached the pairs she found interesting. Those who wanted to could then come to her makeshift studio, where they were given a list of questions to answer before being photographed by Mark and filmed by Bell.

Mark isolated teh individual tiwns in front of the camera, allowing the similarties and differences in their personalities to became apparent - insights captured in Bell's documentary. But Mark also captured the twins in formal portraits, using a Giant Polariod camera to capture the fine detail of their physical similarities and differences.

The accuaracy and depth of the portraits also seems to reveal a little of the complex and highly emotive link between the twins which, Bell says, was often difficult for them to discuss.

The famous and unfamous
In American Odyssey Mark juxtaposed images of celebrities and lowly mortals, jumbling her personal and commerical work. She has worked with an array of stars for magazines such as Rolling Stone, British Vogue and Esquire, but says that she always tried to take pictures that told her something. She says" 'I don't like portraits when celebrities do soemthing silly that is just not them.'

She describes shooting actress Melanie Griffiths, when the actress was only 15 years old. 'There was no one around and it was more relaxed than things are now. I photographed her in her own home.' This, she says, gave the starlet an opportunity to be herself.

Mark believes that it is simple not possible to photograph celebritites in this way anymore, though she has continured to do commerical work. She has strong opinions about the present state of photographic market, and bemoans the 'impersonal' nature of contemporary celebrity portraiture.

She says: 'There are so many pictures but they are all done the same. It's hard to find the photographer in them.' This, she argues, is a reflection on society's obsession with celebrity and the fact that the magazines have to turn around the images too rapidly to allow for much creativity. She concludes: 'I had much more control before and I also got more interesting work before.'

She says that the public's obsession with the rich and famous has also changed the editorial content, in an alarming manner, She explains: 'I used to pick up magazines and see interesting stories form all over thw world. Now the need for advertising has got rid of all that.'

In addition, Mark now finding that her commerical work is frequently airbrushed. A traditionalist, who has always shot on black-and-white film, she will not do this to her personal work. A move to digital is unlikely becasue, as she says: 'I'm used to film and I like to see a transparency.' She also still values the beauty of the print and has worked with the same printer, Chuck Kelton, for the last 15 years. In fact, little has changed her workflow since the sixties, apart from the fact she cans images to archive them on a Macintosh.

Mass market
Mark believes that there is now a lack of a forum of documentary photography, a great tragedy for a photographer who won two John F Kennedy awards for her photo essays, as well as Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography and a Erna & Victor Hasselblad Foundation Grant. Many of these projects were shot for Life , including her work in India documenting Mother Theresa's work and the lives of prostitues living on Falkland Road, Mumbai. This once groundbreaking title has recently been revived but, just as Mark might expect, is now a 'lifestyle' publication, accompanying an array of American newspapers as a weekly supplement.

Developments such as these have forced mark to divide her time between commerical and personal projects, where previously she was able to combine the two. She says: 'I used to get magazine assignments, which would allow me to do personal work as well but that's rare now.'

But despite this, she continues to search for new subject, whether American or not. She extols the virtues of India, and plans to revisit Turkey tosee a middle aged woman she first photographed as a little girl. This is, after all, what drives her and although she says she sometimes tires of the searchm it is her vocation. As she puts it: 'When I see soemthing that registers and I feel that it's worth photographing... all of the little things in my past and my present are making me believe. It's emotional. And I respond.'