Editor: Jim Hughes - Picture Editor: Monica R Cipnic
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Marlon Brando by Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark had a meeting right before she began her first major documentary project-a study of English drug addicts in a halfway house-that proved to be momentous for her career. At that time, she had already done a few short assignments for Look magazine and Jubilee, a Catholic publication, and some of her work had appeared in photography magazines. But the numerous photo-essays and several books from which her sizable reputation as a documentary photographer and photojournalist would emerge were still very much in the future in 1968 when, at the suggestion of a friend, she showed her portfolio to a publicist named Mort Engelberg at United Artists film studio.
Until that fateful meeting, Mark did not know much about the movie business-specifically, that a freelancer could be hired by a film company to photograph the making of a movie. So she was pleasantly surprised when she was sent by Engelberg to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to photograph the making of a film called Alice's Restaurant. And she still seems surprised today when she recalls how fortuitously her second career began at that meeting 15 years ago.
Her photographs of Alice's Restaurant were published by Look magazine, as were those taken on her next film, Fellini Satyricon (also done for United Artists). Mark was an immediate success in her new profession. A story in a mass magazine about the making of a movie can be equivalent to a great deal of costly advertising, which is why movie companies supplement their regular unit' photographers with high‑priced 'special" photographers‑their individual points of view enable them to take pictures that magazine editors will want to publish.
Unlike the "unit" photographer‑a member of the film crew whose primary responsibility is to document the making of the entire movie‑the special photographer is on the set for only a short time and concentrates on making pictures for magazines, and sometimes for use in advertising. Mark, for example, is generally hired for between one and four weeks. After they read the script, Mark and the publicist decide on the best time for her to photograph. She always avoids the first week of filming, considering it to be too chaotic. Instead, she tries to pick a time when all the major stars are present, when the filming is being done in a location that has good picture possibilities, and when the action of the film promises to be at its most visual.
Italian director Federico Fellini was giving directions during the building of a set on Fellini Satyricon when Mary Ellen Mark photographed him. It was only the second movie she had worked on. 'I was surprised when I saw this picture on a contact sheet. It was a grab shot. It’s one I still like. Look ran her story in color.
Often the best pictures I get in movies are the things that happen outside the actual shooting." Such is the case with this photograph of an extra in Fellini Satyricon (right), who was stuck under a ladder while workers lit the set.
I worked photographing Candice Bergen on a Lina Wertmuller film and was assigned by Life to do her at home. Her father, Edgar Bergen (below), whom I had photographed before, was there. I asked him if I could photograph him with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. His son then brought out the trunk, It was a very moving moment." A few years later Life ran this picture as part of Edgar Bergen's obituary.
Some of Mark's movie work occurs long after the movie is released. She had photographed Henry Miller during the filming of Tropic of Cancer, and years later phoned and asked if she could come to his home and make some pictures. She photographed him with Twinka, a favorite model of many photographers, who had been taking care of Miller and had known him for a long time. He signed a print "Happy Forever."
The best pictures often occur during odd moments on the set, when people are just going about their business. This was taken during the filming of Day of the Locust in Los Angeles. I looked behind me, and workmen were moving the bed from a love scene to another set," she recalls. On the bed were stars Karen Black and William Atherton.
During a break in the filming of Gandhi, Mark took its star, Ben Kingsley, to the side of the set for a portrait session (right). "Whether you're working on a film in India, Poland, or wherever, you're still working on a film set," she says. 'Afterward, you can go off and make pictures for yourself."
This photograph of Dennis Hopper (below), who plays a photographer in Apocalypse Now, was taken during a break in the filming. Getting portraits like these depends on the cooperation of the actor, and Mark feels she has to push. "You have to make your own access. You never have enough time."
This picture of passers-by in San Francisco (right) observing the filming of Crackers, directed by Louis Malle and to be released later this year, was one of the first Mark did with the Rolleiflex SLX. She says shooting with this medium-format camera and using more lights made me interested in photography again."
Mary Ellen Mark has been 'special photographer" on all of Milos Forman's films since 1971, when he came to America and made Taking Off. Forman (below) directs the cast of Ragtime on a windy New Jersey beach. "It's not the kind of picture I usually take," says Mark. "It's grabbed."
As a "special" photographer, Mark documents the activities on and around the set, often looking for the offbeat moment (she does not like to photograph during the actual filming, afraid that she may distract the actors), and also makes portraits of the major stars by appointment off the set. After checking with the assistant director, she finds herself a perch close to the action and usually waits a long time for something to happen. Then she must capture the moment quickly, knowing that it will never reoccur, but without interfering with the filming. Inevitably, she says, she's always in somebody's way. The irony, according to Mark, is that while photography is an aggressive act, she has to be diffident, aware of everything going on around her on the set, yet careful not to disrupt the emotional flow of the actors and director nor to get in the camera's field of vision.
She finds the film environment stimulating. "It's fascinating to watch a whole group of people who are all excellent at what they do." But at the same time, she tries not to be seduced by the fantasy quality of moviemaking. "I like to make realistic pictures in the midst of this fantasy," she says. "That's what I'm very best at ‑making realistic pictures. Those are real people making a fantasy, and it's important not to lose your own point of view."
There are problems, however. She must always photograph both in color and black and white (the latter film is more of a personal medium for her, which is why this portfolio is in black and white). The director and major actors usually have considerable veto power over the images to be used, since she is hired by the movie company (although Mark says she always retains the copyright). And, as Mark puts it, "It's not the same as doing your own work‑you're there photographing the work of somebody else. But a lot of journalistic assignments are not necessarily your own work either." Yet, she says, "From every film I have worked on, I may have gotten one or two photographs to keep for myself."
Film work is quite different from documentary photography, which is what Mark prefers. But very few, if any, freelance photographers make a living from documentation. Film work pays well, as well as doing corporate annual reports, and several times better than magazine photography. And Mark is also paid by magazines for her film photography: She says she will not accept an assignment from a magazine when she is already on assignment for a studio, but if she knows what the editors want, she will try to do it and let them have a first look at the photographs; then they pay her for whatever pictures they use.
Her jobs for movie companies help to finance her own projects, which have included three books: Passport (Lustrum Press, New York, 1974), a collection of photographs taken around the world; Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1979), a study of women in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, which was done after she first photographed in that hospital for the film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest; and, most recently, Falkland Road (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1981), a documentation of the lives of very poor Indian prostitutes in Bombay. In the last few years, she has also photographed Nobel prizewinner Mother Theresa extensively, and the photographs will eventually be published as a book.
She has not, however, lost her enthusiasm for working on films. The last two, both to be released later this year, were, according to Mark, among the most satisfying movie jobs she has ever had. Crackers, directed by Louis Malle and starring Donald Sutherland and Jack Warden, and The Karen Silkwood Story directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Cher, are both very good films, she says, with excellent directors and actors who were very helpful to her. Another reason she enjoyed working on them is her current enthusiasm for the new Rolleiflex SLX medium‑format camera, whose quickness and image clarity especially impress Mark. She has begun to use it as a portrait camera in addition to her usual Leicas and Nikons.
Yet working on the movies can be humbling. "You're the least important person on the set," says Mark. "You're in the way all the time. You have to learn not to be in the way and still get the pictures, because in the end everyone wants strong pictures.
For her work on films, Mary EIlen Mark is represented by Lee Gross Associates, Inc.; her photo journalistic and documentary picture files are handled by Archive Pictures; her gallery is Castelli Graphics ‑all are in New York City.