Her pictures celebrate humanity in its most diverse and eccentric forms. Circuses, gypsy camps, the marginalized and the destitute - Mary Ellen Mark's insights can be shocking, humorous, tragic, or a mix of all three. But after a brilliant 40-year career, she tells Richard Grant why she doesn't feel a success any more.
September 10, 2005
By Richard Grant
Photography by Mary Ellen Mark
“I remember the exact moment, exactly what I was feeling, for every one of these.” The great American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark is sitting in the back booth of a restaurant, sipping a glass of white wine and looking through the best photographs she has ever taken - the "iconic photographs” as they are described in her new book, Exposure. She made the selection herself, going back through tens of thousands of pictures shot over 40 years, whittling them down to 1000 and then to 134, trying to choose the images that meant the most to her.
What about this one, I say, sliding the next photograph across the table, feeling vaguely like a police detective. Four blind children in school uniforms are squatting, crouching, kneeling, sitting in a patch of grass and weeds. They all appear to be looking at different things. In the far left of the frame a girl has been picking flowers, pulling their, stalks off and collecting the flowerheads on the lap of her skirt (what exquisitely sensitive fingertips she must have), and now her innocent face and strange sightless eyes are turned up towards the light and Mary Ellen Mark's camera.
"The Ukraine, a school for the blind, the Eastern bloc had just opened up, I was lucky..." Mark says and then she breaks off, overcome by emotion, close to tears. "This is so sad,” she sniffs. "I really find it hard to look at these.”
It's not that sad, I offer. The children look happy enough, probably glad to be out of the classroom and exploring this place by touch and smell and...
"Yes," she says. "I know. That's not what I mean. It's sad because this is the kind of work I love to do, more than anything else in the world, and I was very successful doing it for a long time, and now I can't make a living doing it. The market has dried up. Magazines don't want serious documentary photography any more. They want style, fashion, celebrity, surface gloss, or an illustration to sell an idea or a story to the reader. I'm not an illustrator and I refuse to take shallow, glitzy pictures so I'm ... not a success anymore.”
She is a tall, rangy woman in her mid-60s, open and direct, soulful and intense, with long black hair twisted into two thick plaits. She is wearing loose-fitting black clothes and an ethnic scarf; rings on six fingers, bracelets, earrings, a string of beads around her neck and a figure of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, hanging on a silver chain. There is a suggestion of American-Indian in her face, accentuated by the plaits, and those eyes that have seen so much so deeply, and which express her own emotions so vividly, are framed behind stylish black-rimmed glasses.
Intellectuals can't decide if documentary photography counts as art but here, unmistakably, is an artistic personality type: "I don't relax, I can't take vacations, I'm obsessive-compulsive and I worry with every project that I'm going to fail, and when it starts to go well, and I sense that something beautiful and important and meaningful is being created, it's a fantastic feeling and I find I it very hard to stop. That's what I miss. I've been so depressed lately.”
“I want to know what sort of adults these children are going to turn into": Amanda and Her Cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990;
207X-001-010 A Snake Charmer with His Son, Near Old Delhi, India, 1979;
Pro-Vietnam War Demonstrator with His Mother, Manhattan, New York, USA, 1968.
300I-007-010 Children Picking Flowers at Special School for Blind Children No 5 Ukraine, USSR, 1987
Mary Ellen Mark in 2000 at her Mexico workshop.
"I refuse to take shallow, glitzy pictures"
She doesn't feel successful anymore, the phone doesn't ring like it used to with those plum top-dollar magazine assignments, but on the other hand Mary Ellen Mark has a widely envied contract with The New Yorker and a staff of four, plus interns, working at her studio and photograph library in a big SOHO loft space. The walls are covered with her prints and the flat surfaces are crammed with all the mechanical toys and robots she has collected over the years.
She has always supplemented her income by shooting production stills on film sets, and that work still comes in from time to time. Sometimes she shoots ads. She lectures and teaches an annual photography workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, and sells her work for between $US2500 (for some silver prints) and $US 12,000 (for the 20cm x 24cm Polaroid prints).
What she doesn't get to do any more is the thing she's best at: immersing herself in other people's lives for long periods of time, forming the deep emotional connections that allow her to be there with her camera for their most revealing moments.
Most documentary photography, especially from the marginal fringes of society where Mark has spent so much time, passes a judgment or offers an interpretation from an outside perspective. Isn't this extraordinary? Isn't this disgraceful or haunting or ironic or a freak show? At her best, Mary Ellen Mark takes us in deeper and closer, to a more personal, intimate level. Her compassion engages our compassion and we wonder what it's like to be this person.
A lot of her best work is with children, and young adolescent girls in particular. "If I'm in an unusual or extreme social environment, I always want to know what it's like to grow up there and experience it as normal, everyday life:' she says. "And I want to know what sort of adults these children are going to turn into." She likes to stay in touch with the people she photographs, especially the children. "I love them, I care about them, I want to know how they're doing, I want to photograph them again," she says.
Mark is still photographing Erin "Tiny" Blackwell, who was a 13-year-old street prostitute in Seattle in 1983. Dressed up for Halloween in a black dress and veil, she was on the cover of Mark's best-known book, Streetwise. It began as a Life magazine assignment on teenage runaways and turned into an award-winning book and then an Oscar-nominated documentary film directed by Mark's husband, Martin Bell. I met him at the studio, a slightly rumpled Englishman with a cropped white beard and an easy, down-to- earth manner, padding around in his socks.
"Martin and I have worked on several projects together and it never gets competitive,” Mark says. "It's always supportive and mutually beneficial and I trust him totally with lighting and with editing my photographs'
They met in London in 1980 on the set of the film Ragtime. She was shooting stills, he was making a documentary about its star, James Cagney. They never had children and this was a mutual decision. "We wanted our freedom to travel and work," she says. They don't have dogs because Bell won't let her. He says they travel too much for the responsibility but she is sure they could find a way. "I love dogs,” she says. "I adore them. When I'm teaching in Mexico I rescue dogs from the streets and make my students adopt them."
They do have mechanical dogs in their apartment, and every Christmas Mark throws a party for about 40 real dogs, with their owners in tow. They are encouraged to arrive in limousines and dress up their dogs in costumes. "The dogs love it," she says. "They're all excited and happy and wagging their tails. They know it's a special occasion and that it's all about them. We have a different theme every year, and we put out bowls of mint-flavored water. We tried putting out food but with 40 dogs, that didn't work out so well."
What about other animals?
"I'm not much for cats, I'm terrified of mice. I've worked a lot with elephants and they are extremely intelligent and sensitive and thankfully they seem to like me. You never want to get on the bad side of an elephant. And never trust a chimp.”
The first communion of white-veiled Margaret Joyce at a travelers’ encampment is a rubbish dump in Ireland. Fellini dancing with a megaphone on the film set of Satyricon in Rome. Italian-American retirees dancing in Miami. Glue-sniffers in Khartoum, street children in Brazil, travelling circuses in Mexico, India, Vietnam and Brooklyn.
As a child in Pennsylvania, Mary Ellen Mark had recurring dreams about aeroplanes and knew she was meant to travel. "It wasn't a happy childhood,” she says. "We were well off but my father was ... let's just say troubled, and there was a bad atmosphere in the house.” His trouble was mental illness, nervous breakdowns, hospitalizations, but it seems too long ago to press her about it.
"When I was a child,” she says, "all I would think about was how many years I had left before I could get out by myself and be free in the world.”
She went to university in Pennsylvania to study painting and art history. She was thinking about becoming a painter, or an architect maybe, and then she won a scholarship to the Annenberg School of Communications, which offered a photography course. "I knew from the first moment I picked up a camera, on my first school assignment, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was going to find a way to travel the world and tell the stories of the people I met through photographs."
“I could happily spend the rest of my life photographing circuses in India": (top) Twin Brothers Tulsi and Basant, Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989;
220B-319-002 Vera Antinoro, Rhoda Camporato and Murray Goldman, Luigi's Italian American Club, Miami, Florida, 1993.
By the end of the course Mark was selling photographs for publication, and then she won a Fulbright scholarship to take photos in Turkey. All that youthful excitement returns as she talks about it. She took the long way back from Turkey, spending a year photographing in Western Europe, and this work was later published as her first book, Passport.
Then New York, 1966: never leave the apartment without a loaded camera, hit every news event and start clicking furiously at anything else that turns your head. Mark established herself as a freelancer for magazines, selling them photographs of transvestites, pro- and anti-war demonstrators, burlesque comedians, marriage brokers, and pushed her way through the door into Hollywood and the market for production stills. Her first New York Times Magazine cover story was the stills from the film The Day of the Locust in 1975, which meant getting paid twice for one job.
“It was their individual personalities that attracted me": (from top) Roland Riley Pulling His Cat's Whiskers, Belfast, Maine, USA, 1990
207X-001-003 Monkey Trainer's Daughter, Old Delhi, India, 1979.
300B-016-035 Mona, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, USA, 1968
Her big artistic breakthrough came in 1976. Three years earlier she had shot stills on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was filmed at the Oregon State Hospital, and she had met some of the women in the maximum security ward. Then she came back and spent a month living with the women, slowly gaining their trust and friendship. "I didn't want to tell a story, or expound a theory or interpretation of mental illness” Mark says. "It was their individual personalities that attracted me, the undisguised purity of their emotions, and that's what I wanted to show.”
Ward 81, as a magazine story, exhibition and book, won her awards and grants and showed her a new way of working. In 1978 she decided to go back to Falkland Road in Bombay, which she had visited 10 years earlier, and immerse herself in the lives of the prostitutes working there. "I'm not new age at all but I had a dream that told me I should go there' she says. "It was probably the toughest assignment I've ever done, in terms of building trust. The first few times I walked down the street with my cameras, the girls pelted me with garbage and screamed insults at me. I just kept coming back, week after week, like I belonged there, and I did belong there in a way because I would get so caught up in the emotions and dramas and action on the street. Eventually one of the madams got curious and invited me in for tea, and once she accepted me I started to make friends."
The girls worked in small wooden cubicles with barred windows facing out onto Falkland Road. "They were so young and beautiful: 11, 12, 13 years old, and not unhappy with their new way of life. A lot of these girls came from terrible poverty, their families had sold them to the madams, and now they were getting make-up and nice clothes and jewelry and attention, and they were too young to understand what it meant."
She spent four months there, all expenses paid by the German magazine Stern. Then Life sent her to spend a month with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, but that wasn't enough time, so she went back. No one knew it at the time but Mark and her peers were living in the golden age of documentary photography. The big magazines had huge photography budgets and were competing with each other to publish the longest and most captivating photographic essays about the "unfamous", as Mark calls them. Then the project would get expanded into a book, an exhibition and, in Mark's case, the inevitable award.
Now it is the fashion and celebrity photographers who get the big budgets and multiple-page spreads in high-circulation magazines. "They don't want to publish photographs that have a deep meaning or ask a difficult question” Mark says. "I keep hearing that the pictures I take are too real, or too kind, or too intimate to be commercial. They need something slicker and flashier to sell the magazine and keep the advertisers happy. The worst thing is when they want me to take a cynical, mean portrait of someone, to make them look silly or pompous or evil or however they have decided this person ought to look. I love the people I photograph! Well, maybe not the white supremacists, and the the pro-war demonstrators, but I'd rather hang up my cameras forever than take a cheap shot at someone "
It is hard to get her off this subject; what it means - the bottom line - is that she has to finance her documentary work with her own money, and at the moment she doesn't have enough to do it. She has serious monthly outgoings in New York and she doesn't travel on a shoestring. When she was photographing travelling circuses in India - she was there for six months and photographed 18 different circuses - she had four Nikons with seven lenses, four Leicas with five lenses, a Polaroid, four Hasselblads with six lenses, plus strobes, flash units, light-meters, more than 1000 rolls of film and a team of assistants to help with the logistics.
"I want to photograph the circus again," she says. "Next year, if I can come up with the money. I could happily spend the rest of my life photographing circuses in India. It's everything I love. It's surreal and Fellini-esque, it's irony, tragedy, humour, pathos.”
The monkey trainer's daughter sits in a wasteground with two monkeys and a tent in the background. Her face is dirty and shows no cheer, and the monkeys have chains around their necks. I slide it across the table. "I take sad photographs” Mark says. "But look at the tenderness. They're comforting each other. They're sisters or brothers and sisters. I'd love to track her down and find out what she's doing. Wouldn't that be fascinating? Don't you want to know?"