Life's Rich Pageant
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark visits campus
Fall 2010
By Jessica Wynne
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

"I love the idea of American ritual," renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark said. It was September 14 and Mark, speaking in the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre as the first guest of the Photography Department's 2010-11 Photo Talk series, began the evening with a slideshow of her work, which included black-and-white images of parades, rodeos, and trick-or-treating kids on Halloween. Many of the photos were first printed in magazines like the late, lamented Life and Look, back when publications were willing to devote many-page spreads to photo essays on "the kind of human interest stories we don't see anymore," she said.

Clayton Moore, the former Lone Ranger, Los Angeles, 1992. Moore was wearing the mask when Mark arrived. "He was very paranoid," she said.

Throughout her talk, Mark portrayed herself as a throwback to the days of yore, when editors gave correspondents an open-ended assignment -- "prostitutes in Bombay," for instance -- and several months to work on it. "I'm still an analog photographer," she said, by way of explaining her preference for film over digital, and she advises her students (though based in New York, Mark teaches photography in Oaxaca, Mexico) to mask the display screens on their cameras, so they don't look at what they've just shot and "miss a picture while they're looking at it." But her talent has proved durable, recognized and rewarded for nearly five decades. In addition to her documentary work‑for which she's photographed everything from traveling circuses in India to a school for disabled children in Iceland--Mark has shot ads for Heineken and Nissan and behind-the-scenes action and publicity stills for countless movies, including Apocalypse Now (1979) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). She also collaborates with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, helping to produce his pictures and photographing his subjects.

Bell was on hand, and the event finished with a screening of his latest documentary, Prom (2010), for which Mark is planning to publish a companion photo book, and an audience Q&A with the couple. Asked by a student about the prospects for young photographers, Mark let her belief in the enduring value of her work, and that of others like her, show. "Life is rich and interesting," she said. "There has to be a future in documenting it."