Daily News
On-Set Diary Hits the Mark
A photographic history reveals movie stars at work
December 21, 2008
By Nicole Lyn Pesce
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark and Dean Tavoularis

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark with a snake during the filming of "Apocalypse Now" in Pagsanjan, Philippines, 1976.  Photograph by Dean Tavoularis

Hugh Jackman in character as a rugged cattle drover on the set of "Austrailia" with a crew member.

New York photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark has spent four decades capturing life on the edge ‑ shooting everything from circus performers traveling across India to teen runaways in Seattle.

Yet her latest book, "Seen Behind the Scene: Forty Years of Photographing on Set" (Phaidon Press, $59.95) is a backstage pass to a much glossier ‑ if equally exotic ‑ realm, showcasing candid shots of actors and directors taken from the more than 100 iconic movies. 

The sense of intimacy Mark has captured in these black-and-white stills unusual, mainly due to bureaucratic red tape that exists today that makes it next to impossible for anyone to get genuine access to big‑budget movie sets.

"Access is a lot more difficult now," says Mark, 68, in here SoHo studio.  "Before, you could capture the atmosphere and wander around behind the scenes backstage.  Now, all they want are studio pictures for advertisements," she scoffs.”

Mark admits she does her best work with people she knows and trusts – and probably more importantly, who trust her.  “[I’ve] worked with directors for years, like Tim [Burton]; he totally trust me,” she says rattling off a list of other filmmakers who appreciate her art, including “Australia’s” Baz Luhrmann and “Babel’s” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

“With directors who love still pictures, you still have access,” she says.  “They don’t mind you being there.  And you learn how not to be intrusive.  You just take cues of where you can be that’s not going to be disturbing.”

Mark learned to walk that fine line over the decades filming the fringes of society.  She earned the trust of subjects even warier than movie stars, either by living in a Bombay brothel with young prostitutes, or roaming the halls of an Oregon women’s mental hospital.

“Documentary photography is an aggressive act,” she says.  “You have to jump in there to get what you need.”

Mark has also developed sixth sense for capturing candid shots "it is difficult. You watch what is going on, and you just know," she says.

Great actors, she says, give her strong cues. "People like Johnny  Depp ‑ he's amazing, and he's really cooperative ‑ can make the picture for you," She says, “but you have to be able to move very quickly.  You have to be on top of things, always, and know when to try to catch a picture.”

And snapping stars off-guard – like the legendary Katharine Hepburn laughing with Henry Fonda between takes during “On Golden Pond” – is where Mark truly shines.

"That's where my heart and soul are," she admits "I Just want [actors] to be themselves. And I think that's kind of a relief for them, too."

Henry Fonda  and Katherine Hepburn jokingly react to an incident on the set of "On Golden Pond" (1981). Both won Oscars for their roles as a married couple visiting their New England home for their 40th summer.

In "Honky Tonk Freeway" (1981), a mayor goes to great lengths to attract visitors to his town's safari park, including this attempt to teach Bubbles the elephant to water-ski.

Sean Penn in a Manhattan dressing room, 1983

Photos courtesy of "Seen Behind the Scene: Forty Years of Photographing on Set" by Mary Ellen Mark, Phaidon Press. 2008. www.phaidon.com