May/June 1995
Michael Stephens
Mary Ellen Mark

One of the world's best‑known photojournalists, Mary Ellen Mark can be called a citizen of the world. Everything about her seems energized and ready to go some place or to meet someone new.

At her office on Spring Street in Soho, she and her staff work with state of‑the‑art computers that archive her work. With one key stroke, she can access thousands of photographs.

Mark is a whirling dervish, and her office has the feeling of a busy newsroom at a city paper. One minute she examines slides on a light table; the next moment she takes an international telephone call about an assignment or talks to a magazine editor wanting to buy rights to one of her memorable photographs. She is all business until she sits down for an interview; then she becomes more thoughtful, even philosophical.

Tall and thin with a dark braid falling down her back, she has a face as expressive as any she photographs. Turning her head slightly, she looks like a successful daughter of Lower East Side immigrants from Russia. From another angle, she appears Native American or even Eurasian. All or none of this might be true.

Whatever the complexities of her past, her approach to photography is simple.

Opposite: Mary Ellen and Raja, Gemini Circus
Perintalmanna, India 1989
“I always try to go for that odd moment that's memorable both graphically and dramatically," she says. "I look for an edge."

At the edge is where Mary Ellen Mark prefers to work. This might be in India at a circus or with Mother Teresa. Or it may be found in Russia or Vietnam or the Philippines. She may befriend a homeless family living out of a car in Bumluck, America or acquaint herself with Bombay prostitutes.

Sometimes the edge is right in her own backyard. A recent photograph in The New York Times Magazine was of the author Mary Gordon's mother, who now suffers from dementia. Yet Mark is always clear about where her sympathies are found.

"I don't want to photograph people that I'm going to betray," she says. "I would never take a picture of someone that I felt compromised them. I'll never put an ugly lens on my camera to distort someone or make them look foolish."

Mark's photographs testify to that sentiment. Her images are engaged statements about people living in the world, but they are tempered by compassion. She is a humanist in the best sense of the word. A committed photographer dedicated to finding the visually startling, she also looks for the subtle and beautiful in life. Her photographs are affirmations about the human condition, and some of her most memorable photographs are of children.

At the Ganges River
Benares, India 1989

"I love photographing children," says Mark. "Childhood is such an odd stage of our lives. You're a little person between everything. Childhood is unformed. Raw."

As she pauses and reflects, one can imagine her picturing her own childhood around Philadelphia, visiting a mental hospital in the third grade, a class trip which made a lasting impression, especially since, years later,

her own father suffered from mental illness. Her expression suddenly appears inward and isolated, sad and compassionate. Then she perks up. Suddenly she is the high school cheerleader she once was, the most popular girl in the class.

What is unusual about Mark's photography is that it is more moral than technical, and yet her technique is nothing less than expert and remarkable. Put a camera in her hands, and her shy persona transforms into a powerful one, and all the world becomes her stage. Compassionate, and empathizing with her subjects, Mark also is capable of casting a cold eye upon the world. And as with any photojournalist, the center of her world is people.

Mark once stated that any photographer who expects to change the world suffers from an inflated ego. She still doesn't believe that pictures are going to make the world a better place, but she acknowledges how influential certain photographers are. Names such as Sally Mann, Eugene Smith, and Edward Curtis fly from her mouth.

"Those kinds of photographers make people aware of situations, and of new ways of looking at life," Mark declares. "They broaden our awareness, and we see the world in a different way. But, inevitably, change takes a long time."

The situations Mary Ellen Mark prefers are those found at the edge, and those situations make for powerful images. She has said that the first time she held a camera, she knew photography would become her life's work. It still preoccupies her with childlike fascination.

"I mean I suddenly found it," she says, reflecting upon that day long ago when she‑a budding art student‑traded in her paint brush for a lens. "I found it like that. I just knew it. And there was no question about it."

She admits that part of her success as a photographer has to do with being a woman. Her subjects often open up to her where they would not to someone else. When she was photographing Bombay prostitutes, she had access that would have been denied a man because she did not pose a threat. At times, she was even welcome.

"You have to be willing to be very bold," says Mark. "I mean, I'm not going to hurt someone, or damage their integrity. But on the other hand, you have to go for it. You have to be bold enough to try for what you need no matter what it takes."

Her work has taught her to become intuitive about people and places. The next assignment might take her to Chicago or Tulsa, Bombay or Rio. Wherever she lands, Mary Ellen Mark arrives, looks, takes everything in. Wherever she is, she absorbs life through a compassionate lens, patina'd by a fine moral sense, and she finds her subjects.

In a way, she reminds one of the ancient philosopher Diogenes who lit a lamp on the world, searching for one honest man. In the world lit by Mary Ellen Mark's photography, you can expect to find that person. It will be where she and her work live. At the edge..

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