Digital Photographer
The acclaimed photographer talks about her nights in the asylum and the death of documentary with Greer McNally
By Greer McNally
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Acrobat Sleeping, Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989. Even when on location, Mark doesn't  just rely on the natural or ambient light at her disposal. She likes to have a Quantum, Norman or Metz flash with her depending in the scale of the project. If she's out on the street on her own, she'll stick a Metz on, But if the assignment calls for an assistant she feels more at ease loading up with heavier equipment.

The day we talk, Mary Ellen Mark has just returned from a memorial service. Perhaps that's what's put her in such an introspective mood. Whatever it is, her words, "At least I had a good run" are very final, like she plans to hang up her camera and head into the sunset. In fact, the opposite is true.

Quietly, over the last 40 years, trademark plaits gently swaying against her tiny frame, Mark has become the grand dame of documentary photography. With husband and filmmaker Martin Bell she has maintained her integrity, taking her camera into the slums of India, the world of the circus and the madhouse. It has been a path that has not brought her great wealth, but an impressive reputation and a slightly tough persona. Looking at the many portraits of her, nearly always in black and white, it is easy to mistake the confidence she exudes for hardness. But the woman at the other end of the phone, the one who has just been remembering one of her friends ‑ the filmmaker Morris Engel, who with wife and photographer Ruth Orkin, is credited by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut with inspiring the New Wave cinema movement ‑ is anything but hard. But she is concise and a little sad; not lust because of the day's proceedings, but because of the state of documentary photography. The industry has changed dramatically since she picked up her camera full‑time at the age of 23. The access and the freedom that first got her into those hard to photograph places and first brought her to the world's attentions, are gone.

A case in point is her study of the Oregon State women's mental facility. When Mary Ellen started seriously, she began as a stills photographer on film sets, one of which was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It gave her the opportunity to get the access she had always wanted and after filming finished, she and a writer moved into a deserted ward of the hospital for seven weeks.

"We lived there right next to where the women were. The place was haunted ‑ and I mean that - so each night we'd lock ourselves into the cells." Never one to do anything in small steps, Mark threw herself in, running into a little danger along the way.

Girl Sifting Through Ashes At The Burning Gbats, Benares, India, 1989. Mark first visited Benares over 30 years ago. Today it is her favorite city in India. She senses a haunted air about the place because of the many who come there to die. It’s on the banks of the Ganges that their bodies are turned to ashes at the largest cremation ground in India. The girl in the picture is one of the many that scour the ashes looking for gold from the dead. The children fascinated Mark because of their acceptance of death

"One night, I forgot to lock the door. The men used to bring the breakfast through to the woman's ward and I overslept. When I woke, I looked up, and there was one of the men and he was standing in my room." Perhaps even then she exuded that certain unflappability. Needless to say a sharp "get out of here" removed her unwelcome guest.

But why put herself in that situation? Was it to fully immerse in the process and connect with the subject? While these sound like strong, altruistic reasons, her own is far simpler.

Changing Times
"I think I could have had a good connection if I'd stayed in the motel down the road. But it was just so much more convenient to be there. To get up in the morning and just to be there, you know?" Today, she would do it again, but it's a choice that she believes she'd no longer be able to make.

"It's so much harder now because there are all sorts of issues, such as insurance, and they are more suspicious of the media ‑ I'm not sure they would let me."

Young Bull Riders With Dollar Bills At The Boerne Rodeo, Texas, USA, 1991. Mark worries about the future of documentary photography. Just days before speaking to Digital Photographer, she had a call from one of the children originally featured in the American Odyssey series, from which this picture is taken. Now in his early twenties, he was still in the rodeo and wanted an image of his younger self. The very things that Mary Ellen loved to photograph are still going strong but the funding is disappearing

Recently she was voted most influential living female photographer by the readers of a leading American photography title, an accolade, which she finds flattering: "It's nice to be considered a woman that has affected other women." But the question I ask her is why her sex should be such an issue.

"Well that has always been odd to me." She laughs, "I think they should have a contest now for the most influential male. You wouldn't see that though."

The sex issue
There have always been great female photographers. Mark cites Lisette Model as a major influence, but really when she lists the people who inspired her as a postgraduate student in Philadelphia there is no distinction between the sexes. Irving Penn, Robert Frank and Helen Levitt are all mentioned.

"I love all of these people. I think they are great photographers. I don't think the men are better than the women or the women are better than the men."

It might not just be the day's proceedings that have made her look inwards. Her book Exposure is also due to hit the shelves this month. It is, after all, the culmination of 40 years' work. Over a two‑year period, Mark, Bell and her designer sat down and sifted through the thousands of images that she has digitally archived. Photography had always been a hobby in childhood ‑ "I always loved pictures: of my friends at school and at camp" ‑ but it was an experience at university that allowed her future to fall into place. "I just picked up a camera and went out on the street. I really loved the experience. So it's always been people from the very beginning.”

Gyspy Camp, Barcelona, Spain, 1987 Mark has always been attracted to those on the outskirts of society, finding them the most interesting subjects

People are the most important thing to Mark more than the medium or the format. She has always gravitated towards the disenfranchised, perhaps because she sees herself as a loner. The communities that she then documents ‑ the circuses, the twins ‑ all welcome her in. So what drives her towards these subjects?

Driving Force
"I just really want to take good pictures. That's what drives you forward, the feeling you get when you make a good image. That's what drives you forward and keeps you going. It's very difficult now. Before, there were so many opportunities to go off and photograph rodeos in Texas or circuses in India, where there would be amazing possibilities, where the work would be funded by a magazine. But that all seems to have passed."

Ram Prakash Singh With His Elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Abmedabad, India, 1990 Mark's love of circuses sprang from childhood, After visiting India she fell in love with the country as well

She explains her mood: "Things have changed so much here ‑ I don't know if you have the same situation in England ‑ but there are very few magazines now that use documentary photography. There's still news photography and the news magazines will send people to photograph war. But the idea of going out and spending a few weeks doing an essay on a town or a mental hospital or on a doctor is just not done anymore. Before we had a tradition of great documentary photographers ‑ you have Donald McCullin and we have W. Eugene Smith ‑ and they produced all those great images, but we're just not seeing those in magazines anymore. There are a lot of people who are going to lose out. The young people will suffer the most because they won't have a reference for that kind of great work."

While the weekend supplements run photo stories by established names occasionally, there is no real outlet for those up and coming documentary photographers grappling with grant applications to get their pictures in the first place. The public is now expected to seek out ways to feed its documentary needs. Galleries are an option we discuss.

She concedes, "It could go through exhibitions or books, but that way there's much less visibility. Magazines just don't want to spend the money because it takes time to do this. Before, I think documentary work could have an impact on social issues. I'm not sure it could cause change, but I think it made people very aware of all sorts of things going on in our world. Things, which they are not aware of now."

Federico Fellini On The Set Of Satyricon, Rome, Italy, 1969 Mark thinks very few of her celebrity shots truly transcends the moment, but this image of the Italian film director has been exception to the rule

Contortionist With Sweety The Puppy, Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta, India, 1989 Mark experiments with all different formats of cameras. She makes her decision on the day depending on the subject at hand

Today ‑ she is part of the establishment ‑ clear what she has and has not said in the past. And she is quick to correct mistakes. When I ask why she thought working in black and white makes her a better photographer, there is not a moment's hesitation in her answer:

"No I said I'm a better photographer in black and white. I think in black and white. When you are thinking in black and white or thinking in colour you are thinking quite differently. When I have an assignment and I say is it colour or black and white ‑ when they say ‘do a little bit of each.’ I say make a choice."

All things bright and colorful
Most of her projects are in black and white, but she isn't averse to the odd splash of colour. Her project Falkland Road was shot entirely that way.

"When I look at those pictures now, I'm glad I did them in colour. It would have been very different in black and white. It would have been much more depressing, because the colour was so vivid there.  The costumes, the way the rooms were decorated, it would have been a missed opportunity not do it in colour."

Most of the commercial assignments that come her way these days are commissioned in the format. That is work that she doesn't really see as her own, just portraits of the rich and famous. It isn't something she is bitter about. "I've nothing against celebs, but it would be great to see something that has something to do with what's going on in the world. Something's that are more profound."

It's easy to understand her point of view. As she considers her future and where it will take her back to India or forward to work on more films with her husband ‑ there is one thing of which she is sure. "It's very difficult now and it's not just for me.  All the people who are doing documentary work are really frightened because there just doesn't seem to be any money ‑ I hope I'm not finished. I certainly don't want to be. I'd like to go on until I die. But I also like to get the work published and I have to live."

Mary Ellen's hardware


Mark is very clear when we speak: “I’m not a digital photographer.”  By which she means that she does not shoot with a digital camera.  But her image archive is another matter entirely.  All her work is catalogued digitally using Extensis 7 and she admits, “I think it’s amazing some of the things can be done digitally, I really do.”  It doesn’t mean she’s going to give up the fiber paper and film that enchanted her in the first place.  “I think it was why I became a photographer.”  I have a really good printer, Chuck Kelton, here with a lab and I work with him.”  “I use all different kinds of cameras – Canons, Leicas and 645 cameras.  I have both the Mamiya and Hasselblad and I love the Hasselblad Square.  I also have a Mamiya 7, which is like a big Leica.  It’s a wonderful camera, really wonderful.”  When working on commercial projects in or out of the studio she plumps for her RZ.  So how does she decide which to shoot with?  “It depends.  For portraiture I prefer to use medium to large format, but 35mm for the street and documentary work.  I’ve also used the Mamiya 7, the Hasselblad and the 645 for the street work.  Then if I’m going to go out independently, I’ll just grab a camera and go.”  When working on her Twins project she wanted a really large amount of information and used a Polaroid 20X20.  So with all these to choose from how does she close the door on a project?  “You never really think it’s finished.  Time makes you move on.”  Mary Ellen Mark’s book Exposure is published by Phaidon in the UK in June.