From the rodeo towns of Texas to the streets of Bombay, celebrated photographer
Mary Ellen Mark knows the road.
April 1994
Photo Editor: Julie Cunnah


From the rodeo towns of Texas to the streets of Bombay, celebrated photographer Mary Ellen Mark knows the road.

Young rodeo competitors Craig Scarmado (left), age ten, and Cheyloh Mather, 11, cultivate cowboy cool and a hard-bitten sneer.

Serious spinning from a youthful lasso artist.

The intense Americanness of the rodeo is reflected in the parade floats and the Stars and Stripes.

Rooftop hauteur from a parade contestant.

For Americans, born into a vast and constantly changing landmass, the road forever beckons. To know the country, in its extreme diversity, takes time and application; and that is perhaps why its photographers, from Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to Mary Ellen Mark, have tended to be mobile - seekers of new and telling images.
Mary Ellen Mark seems to be on the road even while merely sitting in a chair in her studio. Of course, she has travelled and not just across America. The search for the telling image has led the 53-year-old photographer well beyond the boundaries of the small Texas towns for her rodeo series, featured here.
Falkland Road (1981) showed, in striking colour (unusual for Mark in that she usually works in monochrome), the life of Bombay brothels. Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta was published in 1985. And in 1991, her pictures of small Indian circuses ran in Life as a photo essay, "The Greatest Show in India." But whether it's a photograph of an elephant's trunk curled around the neck of his trainer in India or two pint-sized Texas dudes challenging her camera with their stares, a Mary Ellen Mark image usually has an implosive charge to it. Of that Texas photograph, Mark says, "Those two little boys trying to be tough and macho and cold interested me a great deal in that this is what being a cowboy means to them. Yet, there's something very androgynous about the one on the right and something faintly absurd about the pose.

On the rodeo scene women are either tough cookies or flagrantly female -like Alice Shephard, a mermaid in the rodeo parade.

Her helmet may be homemade, but the look from this pintsized participant is pure grit.

“These Texas pictures," she continues, "allowed me to look at America in a way I never have. When I was shooting, I wanted the photographs to stand for more than what the image merely is. I tried to make the picture become more of a metaphor." And, indeed, they do: the two baby cowboys become the ideal of American masculinity; a scrawny dog being coaxed to jump through a hoop is yet another aspect of America's ongoing love affair with kitsch; patriotic tableaux have a rigidity to them that's fairly frightening.
She herself abhors violence and refuses to photograph it. She stuck to her word for the Texas photographs. Whatever violence resides in her photographs, and it does, comes from a place of calm, such as the terrified eye of a sitting horse or the gaping maw of a dog beneath a smiling granny holding a troubled-looking baby. "There are," Mark admits, "incredible photographs to be shot of people getting rammed and crushed and maimed while riding bulls really dramatic stuff - and any news photographer would have made out like a bandit. But I couldn't take those photographs. I couldn't. I cannot watch violence. I cannot stand to see it. To photograph a war, say, would be horrible for me."

These Texans are patriots through and through, from the star-spangled granny and her fashion-conscious tyke to the bandana-bedecked mutt.

Almost swamped by their hats young Mexican Americans in parade finery pose for Mary Ellen Mark.

The reaction to Mark's rodeo photographs has generally been one of surprise. "The rodeo is very romanticized, and these were pictures of the rodeo that people hadn't really seen before. There were no angry letters or anything like that, but it was clear people didn't know quite how to handle the pictures. I didn't want to make fun of the people in the photographs, but I did want to give a twist to the images." (One of the reasons she seldom works in colour is because she feels colour tends to romanticize its subject. "It becomes just too…too…romantic," she says helplessly)

She had no idea rodeos were so rough before she went to Texas for two weeks of intensive shooting. But then, she also didn't know she would be pelted with rocks along Falkland Road before she gained the trust of the prostitutes there. It would be no surprise to find a woman such as Mark jaded by her travels and experiences, but the opposite holds true: her enthusiasm is -there's no other word for it- intense. In person, she's speedy and at the same time eerily serene.

"Oh, you must go see American Heart," she says, referring to the film about street people (starring Jeff Bridges) that her husband Martin Bell directed and on which she served as associate producer. "These people should be looked at," she insists. "They're part of our culture." The film grew out of Streetwise, the 1985 documentary about homeless kids in Seattle, which in turn had been inspired by Mark's photo essay on the subject for Life.

"I guess I've always felt on the fringe," says Mark, whose photographs have sometimes been compared to those of Diane Arbus, who first made the fringe fascinating. Yet Mark's are softer, without ever being sentimental. Clearly, in her pictures there is an empathy for the subjects, whether a clown and his beloved bull or a child with AIDS. "I'm drawn to those people because their lives interest me. I feel so out of touch with the mainstream. But where that inclination comes from, I honestly don't know."

With all her awards, and one of the highest profiles in the world of art photography, one would think Mark could pick and choose whatever she pleases for assignment. "Are you kidding?" she says with a laugh. "Yes, if I geared my career to do fashion and celebrity photography I would be at the point where I could basically call the shots. But the kind of photography I love isn't always commercial or usable. It's hard to convince magazines to do the kind of stories I want to do, such as go on the road in Texas or India. It gets to be very frustrating."

Of course, if she were doing fashion and celebrity photography she would not, in all likelihood, be driving from one little nowhere village to another in India shooting circuses. Nor would she have produced a book - Ward 81 (1979)- about women in a mental hospital. Glamour is hardly the first word to come to mind at the mention of Mark's name. Yet no-one can make a case against her contention that the majority of general interest magazines lean increasingly towards fashion and celebrity. "They're missing incredible stories," Mark laments. "I like stories that are on the edge and on the inside - stories that would be important and that matter."

Mark looks upon "those moments on the road" as the happiest of her life. "I've lived in and out of hotels for years and years, and that's fine, and the best is when you're working on something with great potential." Though she sets up her trips in advance, there is always room for spontaneity. "While photographing the rodeo, I had everything planned out in the sense of where each rodeo was going to be, but every picture I took just happened."

Typically, the first few days find her insecure: "You don't quite know what you're going to do. You have to establish your location, where you sleep, eat, where you're going to get your images. You have to make your routine, your order - it's like a whole little thing." And she finds it to her advantage that she's a woman: "People are definitely less threatened by women with cameras. So, on the superficial level of the street, I think it's much easier for me to go into a stranger's house. I think the ability to gain trust as a photographer has a lot to do with how direct you are. If you're embarrassed or hesitant, people pick up on it in the same way animals do. They have a sixth sense about it."

When asked if being on the road is really a search for home on the part of the constant traveller, she ponders a while. "In a way… it could be a search for home… yes. I mean, I don't come from a really solid home. I don't have children. I do have a home here in New York.

"I'm very superstitious, you know. I wear this Ganesh around my neck as a talisman when I travel, and I take a little stuffed monkey with me. If the monkey's with me when I go on assignment, then I feel everything will be all right. I guess I try to make my hotel room my own little home."

Mark considers the circus pictures from India "a real journey." She used her work in India as a pattern for the Texas rodeo shoot. "We had a driver and an old rickety van, packed the stuff and just sort of took off." She raves about her favourite place in India - the holy city of Varanasi. "It's the city where people go to die," she explains, searching in her immense studio archive for photographs. Eventually, she finds some stunning photos. "I really want to go back there and make a book," she says.

"I'm determined within the next year to take a long period off and do my own work. It's the kind of thing, well, let's just say you'll never do it unless you just go ahead and do it."

And Mary Ellen Mark will be on the road once again.

Lawrence O'Toole is a Canadian writer who lives in New York City. His first book, Heading for Home, will be published later this year by Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver.