New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark jumped into the tough subjects right from the start and hasn't let up more than 25 years later.
She spent 36 days living in a locked ward of a state mental hospital in Oregon 1976 to document the cloistered world 'of the women treated there and took unflinching but sympathetic photographs collected in her book, "Ward 81."
She spent weeks photographing the sick and dying at Mother Teresa's missions in India in 1980 and 1981, finally garnering The Nobel Prize winner's confidence through the kindly intervention of a priest who spoke on the importance of photography in one of his sermons.
For many stories, Mark, 52, has been in the enviable position of melding her personal passion for long-term documentary photography projects on sweeping social issues with magazine assignments from around the globe.
She is among the top international photojournalists working today, with a string of awards, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and publication credits that include Life, Look, Fortune, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Paris Match, Stern (from Germany) and the New York Times Magazine.
She is a photographer of people drawn like a magnet to the poor, the sick and the outcast. At that universal level, her photographs trace the precarious edge between sanity and insanity, security and poverty, life and death. They convey the vulnerability of each human being and make the connection of common humanity between survivors on the margins of society and society as a whole.
“I want to be a voice for the unfamous people,” Mark stated in one of her many books. “I care about them, and I want the people who see my pictures to also care.”
The photographs seek compassion and slip in a healthy dose of consciousness-raising as is evident in her midcareer retrospective “Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years” at the Chicago Cultural center, 78 E. Washington St.
The exhibit, organized by the International Center of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y., is on international tour.
“Laurie in the Ward 81 Tub, Oregon State Hospital” (since closed), Salem, Ore., 1976, by Mary Ellen Mark.
“Shanti Nagar Leprosy Colony, Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity,” Bengal, India, 1981, by Mary Ellen Mark.
“Children Picking Flowers at Special School for Blind Children No. 5,” Kiev, Ukraine, 1987, by Mary Ellen Mark.
“Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy,” Los Angeles, 1978, by Mary Ellen Mark.
Mark will be in town to speak on her work at 2pm Sept 12 at the Cultural Center and to sign copies of her book “Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years” (Bulfinch Press, $60 in hardcover, $35 in softcover). The Richard Gray Gallery, 620 N. Michigan Ave., is holding an independent exhibition of her work with an opening reception with the artist from 5 to 7 pm Sept. 10. That exhibit, “Indian Circus,” continues through Sept. 26. Stuart Baum, a Chicago photo dealer representing Mark, is hosting an open house for her from 5 to 8 pm Sept. 11 at 1415 W. Wrightwood Ave.
Mark makes a living with a variety of assignments that also include portraits for Vogue magazine and stills for movies such as “The Day of the Locust,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Ragtime,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “American Heart,” made by her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, and still to be released.
The 125 black-and-white photographs in the retrospective include some of her celebrity photographs. There’s one of Marlon Brando, even more intense and brooding than usual during filming of “Apocalypse Now,” and one of Edgar Bergen lifting his dummy Charlie McCarthy from a suitcase in a manner that might be reserved for unwrapping one’s soul. But it’s difficult to think of mark as a photographer of the famous. Her photographs of the “unfamous” are her most unforgettable. The stamp of her emotional investment in them is unmistakable. “They’re my children,” Mark says of her documentary projects.
The exhibit includes selections from some of the most wrenching, moving from images of street children and the mentally ill across the world to those of Mother Teresa’s missions, heroin addicts in London and the poor and homeless in America. They are troubling and powerful photographs that gather a critical mass of human pain and human dignity in the face of it. The very questions they raise about how a photographer “gets in” such places and wins the trust of people who are understandably wary of strangers tell a lot about the determination combined with the skill of one peripatetic photographer.
“(Mark) is a person obsessed with photography; it is at the center of her life, of who she is. Photography defines her because, through her photography, she seeks to define what it means to be human," writes exhibit curator Marianne Fulton in the introduction to the book “Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years."
Former Life Magazine photo editor Peter Howe described photography as Mark's "air and water.”
And that's how Mark "gets in.”
“You win access to people by being there, right there with them,” Mark Says. Her approach to “being there” is to live and breathe an assignment and transcend the boundary of being an outsider, as she did during months of photographing nomadic cosmos of 16 circuses in India, her most recent project.
This is an expensive, touchy and sometimes dangerous way to pursue documentary photography. At the red light district along Falkland Road in Bombay, she braved the jibes and garbage hurled her way each time she returned to try and photograph the “caged” prostitutes who draw curtains across the bars that separate them from the street when they are with a customer. Mark tried again each time she returned to India and, after 10 years of visits and a concerted final effort, the women slowly came to accept her and protect her.
In recent years, feature magazine have become reluctant to invest in the tough documentary photography story, Marl says. Glitter sells better.
"It's incredibly frustrating because I feel I’m right at the prime of my work," she says. “I’m not going to give up, I’m a fighter, and I don’t want to become another kind of photographer. I want to do the work that I love to do.”
As a professional photographer, Mark can't always write the script for her assignments. She works on tight deadlines and photographs in color, when the story calls for it. But she remains selective in the assignments she accepts and continues to pursue that fusion of personal and professional work for documentary projects.
That pursuit of a singular, personal vision is evident in the work of the photographers she says she most admires, such as Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank, Margaret Bourke‑White, Dorothea Lange and, of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier‑ Bresson was one of the founders of the prestigious magnum photo agency, a photographer’s cooperative to which Mark belonged from 1977 to 1981. She later formed her own agency, the Mary Ellen Mark Library.
“Lillie With Her Rag Doll,” Seattle, Wash., 1983, by Mary Ellen Mark.
While Mark is among the many who thinks feature magazines should cover more serious issues, she finds herself the brunt of critics who question whether photographing people with regard to those issues is exploitive.
"It's always a question people ask. It doesn’t make sense to me. Does it mean that only rich pretty people can have their picture taken and poor people who are photographed are being exploited? It makes me furious. I find far less exploitive to do photographs of people who are really in need of something, where perhaps some change will happen. I find that far less exploitive than the silly, funny images that prevail today,” Mark says, noting the positive response from the people in her pictures.
One girl did complain when Mark and Bell returned to Seattle, and he began filming for a documentary on runaways whom Mark already knew from her photography project on the subject. “He opened up the camera and gave the girl the film. She came back the next day and, by then, she wanted to be filmed,” says Mark.
Her photographs stress a shared humanity on every level. They often suggest dialogue between subject and photographer and by extension between subject and viewer. Human contact within the pictures frequently generates a profound metaphor for the resilience of the human spirit. So many of the children and adults alike embrace each other, reach out to each other. A hollow‑eyed runaway in Seattle smokes a cigarette but clings to her rag doll. “Tiny,” on the brink of womanhood, hugs herself in her somber Halloween costume of adult finery that symbolically cuts off the world at her veiled hat.
Such images balance the starkest of circumstances with symbolic power and compositional clarity. "The most important thing is content. But if you add a great sense of graphics and technique, you only make the image stronger and more memorable," Mark says.
Mark's decision to study photography amounted to a bolt out of the blue. She grew up in Pennsylvania, a popular teenager who was the head cheerleader for Cheltenham High School in Philadelphia. She loved to paint and draw and majored in art at the University of Pennsylvania. She enrolled on a scholarship at the university’s Annenberg School for Communication for graduate school and picked photography from the majors offered.
"From the very first moment I went into a class, there was absolutely no question in my mind. I was completely obsessed and in love with photography, an incredible thing that happened by chance.' she says.
She embarked to Turkey in 1965 on a Fulbright Scholarship to undertake her first documentary work. In one photograph she took on that trip, a street child strikes a coquettish fashion magazine pose in her worn, undersized dress. The image reflects the fine line between child and adult, freedom and confinement, strength and vulnerability that would become continuing themes in Mark's work.
"That was a turning point. It was the first picture I took that 1 thought would be an icon,” Mark says. During the next two years, photographs she took in Turkey, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, England and Mexico established her portfolio and the recognition needed to make it as an international photojournalist.
But the alchemy of moment, vision and photographic technique that create a truly great photograph remains a mystery. “It's something intangible. The picture can pass before your eyes and you shoot it. You don't know it when you see it,” she says.