“I THINK YOU HAVE TO LEARN FROM LOOKING AT GREAT PICTURES, BUT I DON'T WANT TO BE LIKE ANYONE. I WANT TO BE LIKE ME.”
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
University of Pennsylvania
School of Fine Arts
Annenberg School for Communication
How would you describe your photography business? I'm a portrait photographer and a documentary photographer.
Do you think that a formal education in photography is valuable? A formal education in the sense of learning all kinds of technique is definitely valuable. I think that good technique just helps you tell your story better.
What do you like about shooting with the Mamiya 711? Does it facilitate your creative process? Well, it has very beautiful lenses ‑ very sharp. I like the 50mm, because I like working with wide lenses. It's kind of like a big Leica and you can work very fast with it.
Who inspires you? Federico Fellini. I think he was for me, the greatest film maker and his imagery and... I wouldn't even think I'm a fraction of as good as he is, because he's brilliant. His subject matter, the kind of humor and irony in his subject matter… there's sadness... humanity. I think that's why I became interested in the circus, because I saw his film, "Clowns." There are photographers that are very inspiring too ‑ people like Irving Penn, Henri Cartier‑Bresson or Robert Frank.
Is there something that hooks you when you're speaking about inspiring photographers? No, because I think you have to be your own person. I think you have to learn from looking at great pictures, but I don't want to be like anyone. I want to be like me.
What advice or suggestions do you have for aspiring photographers? Well, to do what you believe in. Have a look at reality before you decide to turn towards gimmicky stuff. Have a look at reality first, give that a chance, because to me that's where it's at. But to be your own person and aspire to be special because of who you are not because you like somebody else.
Do you shoot film, digital, or both? I shoot film only. I love having a negative. We do, however, scan all of the prints for the digital library in my studio.
What qualities of film are attractive to you? Well, I've worked with Tri‑X for years, so I know it. Sometimes I think what goes wrong with people that shoot digitally and I see them when they're shooting is the look... uh, got the image and they move on. Well, you never really know if you've got the image. You look once… “Oh, that looks ok, I'll finish.” But sometimes I'm in a situation, I'll work it and check that for pictures and I think that with film you do that because you're never sure. You could make a mistake. You think, "Oh, that's great,” and then you look at it closely instead of in that little box in your camera and it's not such a good picture, you know. I don't know. It's just a different way of working. It is. I just like the quality of film and also I like to make prints and I sell prints. That's partially how I live. To sell my work and I just think that prints made with film have a whole other look. I'm not about to become a digital photographer.
What do you expect an assistant to know? Well, I think an assistant should be technical. He should know the lights and the camera. To be inventive. To love light. To love lighting and to have a real sense of light and lighting. And, of course, to have a great personality.