From dispossessed families to white supremacists, photographer Mary Ellen Mark has always been bewitched by the flipside of the American dream. As an exhibition of her work comes to the UK, James Bone meets her.
June 19, 2004
James Bone


The Damm family in their car, LA, 1987.

Mary Ellen Mark

You can judge an artist by her muse. For the past 20 years, Mary Ellen Mark's has been a former child prostitute nicknamed 'Tiny" who, now in her mid-thirties, has eight children by six fathers--not counting one abortion.

In her early portraits, the adolescent Tiny looks defiant, with her jaw permanently clenched, but also forlorn, her thin lips angling down as if she is about to cry. Although she has the slender body of a child, her shoulders are chronically bowed and her face wears care beyond her years. A small scar beneath her chin hints at the untold hardship she has seen. Mark's striking 1983 photograph of her wearing a black veil for Hallowe'en (opposite) is so sombre that it seems she is about to attend a funeral--her own perhaps.

The later portraits reveal a heavy-set, overwhelmingly sad woman, still with straggly hair, who has metamorphosed too early into middle age. In a deeply melancholic 1999 picture of her naked in her bathtub (opposite), she has the same creased lips, but a hulking body with a bulging stomach larger than her breasts.

"She has changed physically a lot, but I still find her in her own way beautiful," the photographer explains. "She has an incredible face and this way of being… It's not beauty in the conventional sense. It's just this look of someone where everything is right out there. You can just feel what she feels."

Father and daughter, Aryan Nations, Hayden Lake, Idaho, 1986.

Mark, whose first major British retrospective opens at Manchester Art Gallery next weekend, comes from the now-endangered tradition of American documentary photography embodied by the likes of W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank. Indeed, her first shots of Tiny were part of a photo-essay on street kids for the legendary Life magazine. The fact that she works primarily in black and white gives her works an added "retro" feel.

Once voted "Most Influential Woman Photographer of All Time" by the readers of American Photo, Mark has spent a lifetime seeking out classic moments of American life--from a menacing cigarette-smoking Santa Claus she met at a Brooklyn diner when still a student in 1963 (overleaf), to the chorus line of New York's Rockettes, whom she shot in her current capacity as a photographer for The New Yorker magazine. Her work comprises such classic Americana as a ballroom-dancing class in Florida; a Texas rodeo; a high-school prom in Pittsburgh; a white supremacists' meeting in Idaho. One of her 14 books, Ward 81, is about the Oregon mental asylum where she served as stills photographer during the making of the film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Amanda and Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990.

Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington, 1983

Tiny in her tub, Seattle, Washington, 1999

As she bounds towards me across her studio in New York's SoHo, it is immediately clear that Mark is an affectionate, not to say motherly, woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. This warmth is clearly visible in her work, whether manifested as compassion or as humour. Although she is now 64, she still plaits her hair like a schoolgirl and she has a gossipy, conspiratorial air. Laughing, she reveals that her early goal in life was to become head cheerleader at her high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. "I should have concentrated on being one of the smartest in my class, rather than being a cheerleader, but at that point in my life that was what my passion was--to be popular," she confides. "But all those things change you. Maybe that is one of those things that made me take pictures that are often ironic, because of my own irony."

Robin and Azizuddin Clark, Hallowe'en, South Bronx, H.E.L.P. Shelter, New York, 1993

Her big heart means that she is invariably kind to her photographic subjects, even when they are people who would despise her. In 1986, she travelled with the writer Simon Winchester to a gathering of white supremacists from the Aryan Nations in Idaho. "They first said we could go in, but then said we had to wait outside and those that wanted to be photographed would come out," she recalls. "I thought it would be horrible, but many came out." Among the photographs she took was a portrait of a racist in a "White Patriot" t-shirt and pointy hat cradling his infant daughter in rapture in his lap (previous page) - so tender it's almost a white supremacist version of a pietà.

The result is that Mark seldom ambushes her subjects--even in the midst of a world-shaking news event. Her studio lies just blocks from the World Trade Centre, but she took little part in the photographic feeding frenzy that followed the September 11 attacks. She was in Washington when the hijackers struck, but when she returned home the next day, she found herself unable to tackle the grief head-on. "The next couple of weeks in New York were very traumatic. People were crying on the street and holding pictures up of the missing," she says. "It's hard for me to do that, to go up to people in that moment when it's so painful. It's not where my strength is.”

Santa Claus at lunch, New York City, 1963.

Her photography is more about gesture. She allows her subjects to have their say--posing, preening, putting on the airs they choose for themselves. It is noticeable how often their eyes meet her gaze, as in her 1990 portrait of a young North Carolina couple, James and Natasha Gurley, or her 1986 image of two black men posing against a backdrop of graffiti in New York's Central Park in pimp-style gear.

Mark is particularly fond of set-piece events--some of her most famous work is of a circus in India--and she loves parades. Her book American Odyssey, on which the Manchester show is based, includes images from the Gay Pride parade, the Puerto Rican Day parade and the Million Youth March in New York. Also on display will be portraits from her project on twins, which was shot over several years at the annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. A New York Times critic commented acidly that photographing twins in such circumstances "must be like shooting fish in a barrel". But Mark explains: "I love conventions." Asked recently by Esquire to photograph an aspect of America, she plans soon to attend a convention of celebrity look-alikes.

Mike and Chris Magoffin, San Bernadino Valley, Arizona 1995

Senior High School Prom, Florida, 1986

Tiny strikes a deeper chord in Mark. The two first met in 1983 outside a Seattle nightclub while Mark was photographing street kids for Life. 'Suddenly a cab pulled up and three very little girls got out--12-13 years old," she said. “They were going to this club. They were all dressed up. Basically, she was a child prostitute. When I went up to her and talked to her, she thought I was the police. She ran away."

Through perseverance, Mark won her trust and Tiny has been part of her life ever since. Mark introduced Tiny to her British-born husband, the film-maker Martin Bell, who filmed her turning tricks in his Oscar-nominated documentary Streetwise. At one point in Tiny's troubled teenage years, the couple, who have no children of their own, even offered to adopt her. But Tiny balked, because she did not want to have to go to school.

"When she was very young and I photographed her, like the picture of her with the veil, she was beautiful," Mark recalls. 'When she was 14, she looked like Diane Lane, the actress, that wonderful little mouth that curled down, this perfect hand--really interesting-looking because she has a face that is not only beautiful, it has a sadness to it. She's not cute. There is something beyond.

“Then she started to change because her life became so tough, so when I photographed her again, only ten years later, she's already looking tough and hardened - I guess from doing a lot of drugs. But she's still beautiful. She's able to show that aspect of herself to the camera," she says. “Then as she gets older, she gained a lot of weight and still you feel the suffering. There is still something about her I find extraordinary. In a way it's such an American face--it's an American working-class face."

So compulsive is her interest in Tiny that she recently returned to shoot her for the tenth time for a future book. Although Tiny is now married to a labourer and living in South Carolina, the chemistry is still there. 'My relationship with her is about taking her picture," she says. 'She has accepted that."

In the late Eighties, Mark tried similarly to befriend a California family called the Damm, who were then living mostly in their car (page 30). She shot a second series of the family in 1994 when they were squatting on an abandoned farm. But when she returned for a third shoot, the couple had broken up and the project did not work. She had left the guy, who is really the person who caused the chaos always. He was the one who got into trouble, because he was accused of molesting the kids," she explains. "My coming was a big event, so they were a little formal with me. Whereas with Tiny my coming's not a big event. She goes on with her life, with all her children, one problem after another."

Mark's images of Tiny, the Damms, as well as projects she has done on London drug addicts, Bombay prostitutes and the Oregon asylum, dearly qualify as social commentary. They embody the radical Sixties ethos that has remained with her from the time she started out. But she insists: "I am not really a political photographer in the sense that I do not really have a desire to make a statement about the country.” Some critics have placed her squarely in the camp of 'concerned photography". But it is a label she rejects. Noting that she recently turned down an assignment in Iraq, she says: "I think concerned photographers are those that go off to war and photograph the plight of people. I don't do that. I'm much more of a coward--always have been. I'm for the underdog. I certainly feel that it's a land of unequal opportunity. I'm interested in having people feel for the people I photograph. It's an unfair world."

American Odyssey and Twins, a Mary Ellen Mark retrospective, is at Manchester Art Gallery (0161-235 8888) from June 26-September 5. American Odyssey (1999) and Twins (2003) are published by the Aperture Foundation.