MIAMI HERALD TROPIC
THE PROPER LIGHT
THE MARK OF AN ARTIST
November 30, 1986
By Madeleine Blais


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The Miami that you see in today's magazine is a Miami you have never seen. You may have glimpsed it out of the corner of your eye, or sensed it beneath the chaos, but you have never seen it like this: frozen for inspection in all its startling variety, so vivid, so close to the surface, so real. Ask a great artist to paint your portrait, and what you see when the work is done is not your likeness, but your soul. Cover and inside photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.

THE MARK OF AN ARTIST

GENE WEINGARTEN

The story has been told of the reporter for The Chicago American who went to cover the Spanish Civil War and sent back a dispatch about a town that had been butchered by Loyalists. All that remained of it, he wrote, were "half a dozen adobe huts and half a hundred hounds."

Back in Chicago his copy editors, guardians as they are of grammar and style and brevity, dutifully changed this line to: “…six clay houses and fifty dogs."

This story is newspaper lore. I retell it here not to disparage copy editors, who are a dandy bunch of people. (They're kind of stiff and weird, but likable just the same, sort of the way one likes a pet reptile. I am just joking! Ha! Ha! I'll bet I'll get this column returned to me tomorrow, all marked up with weensy little nitpicky copy editor corrections!)

My point here is that the copy editors, adhering strictly to rules, screwed up his story. They turned something that was art into something pedestrian.

Here's where it gets sticky, though: What was better about the adobe hut line before they got their hands on it? It's hard to explain. It sounds better. The words somehow carry a feeling of desolation. They move you.

And that's the tricky thing about art, whether it be prose or painting or photography. What distinguishes the truly artistic from the mediocre is often something so subtle and subjective it can't be described, it can only be felt. Like the line about the huts and hounds, it often breaks rules. Consider the photography of Mary Ellen Mark.

I first met Mary Ellen last year, at a conference of magazine editors. The Tropic staff barged in late for lunch, as is our custom, and the only seats available were at a table where one woman sat alone, forlornly. We introduced ourselves, and she introduced herself, and thus we learned we were lunching with one of the finest photographers in the world. She was to be the featured speaker.


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Photograph by Dezso Szuri

Mark Ellen Mark got to talking with Philip Brooker, our art director, about the sorry state of photojournalism in America, about how magazines aren't willing to do serious stories any more, about how she regrets that she has to make most of her money doing fluffy, sappy assignments like shooting movie stars, about how she would be happy to work for far less than her ordinary fees if she could just find a magazine with a soul, and that was the point at which Philip nearly kissed her.

Check out the pictures in this magazine. They break a lot of rules, rules like "don't cut off a person's head," rules like "don't have people pose stiffly." These pictures would drive a copy editor crazy.

As with the hounds and huts, I can't really tell you why these 14 pictures are so special. I know only this: Taken together, they capture something, some basic truth, about this town.

And they move you.

And that's the mark of an artist.

IN THE PROPER LIGHT

A great photographer's vision of Miami.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARY ELLEN MARK
STORY BY MADELIENE BLAIS


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There was something about his white suit. It had such dignity. I asked him if he'd mind if I took his picture, and he said, 'Why? Why do you want to photograph me?' He just couldn't believe I was interested in him." (South Beach, late afternoon.)

The two women pose like well-behaved birds. The soft blond woman holds a picture of Jesus that she takes with her everywhere. She is Paula, and her eyes are blue and lost. The other woman, Shirley, has dark upswept hair, lips twice their real size thanks to a generous application of lipstick, and eyes enlarged by a great streak of purple shadow that extends from one side of her face to the other. Shirley is clutching a tote bag with a picture of the Mona Lisa. She wants everyone to know that the bag is made from oilcloth, not plastic. The women, who live next-door to each other in a run-down apartment in South Beach, are best friends. Paula is 52 and Shirley is 51, and they both like to collect stuffed animals.

"You're great," says the photographer, clicking away, gliding from this direction to that, angling the camera just so. "You are really beautiful. And I love your apartment, Shirley."

"Isn't it wonderful," says Paula. She sighs in admiration.

The light in the room has suddenly dimmed.

"Check the sun," says the photographer to her assistant. "Please check the sun." He runs outside, and, when he comes back, he says the cloud should pass in a half hour or so.
The photographer decides to wait it out.

Paula and Shirley both light cigarettes, a sign that they are about to become expansive, chummy, filled with chatter.

Paula, the blond, has one son, who sends her money every few days. She cannot say when or why or for exactly how long it was that she lost her ability to concentrate, but she did, and for a while she was hospitalized. Now Stelazine and lithium help her keep her thoughts in order. Her room is clean, but sparse, and she has a bad habit of giving everything away.

"Paula," says Shirley, "you should keep your things."

"I know, I know. But other people have so little."

Shirley's on wine, and on a health kick, which means she waits to take the wine until after breakfast, not before. She says she has spent a lot of time in hospitals and on the street. When she was young, she wanted to be a painter. Her artistry now is devoted to her one-room apartment, which she has decorated with tidbits of lace, posters of old stars, satin and velveteen tamp shades, candlesticks, centerpieces, a zealous assortment of what-have-you garnered through studious and frequent visits to the local thrift shops. The room is a colorful, fussy, even exuberant monument to kitsch as life style. It is perfect for her because her hobby is to watch her room. She can't watch television. "My eyes have to be places," she says, puffing on the ever present cigarette, shrugging her shoulders. "For some reason they won't stay still."

"Sun's back," says the photographer. "Would you mind standing by the table. It's a great table, it really is, I love everything on it. Paula, that's good, hold Jesus like that. Shirley, take Mona Lisa and tilt it toward the table so it won't have a reflection on it. No reflection. Perfect, perfect. Now I'm working with a certain kind of film. Two and a quarter. Takes longer. I'm sorry, but you're going to have to close your eyes, and when I tell you to open them, you have to keep them open and very still. All right, now, close. OK, open."

And they close and open, over and over.

And when the eyes are open, they are fixed and steady.

Even Shirley's. She seems stunned. For Mary Ellen Mark, the eyes obey.


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“I kept having to say, I want a real picture of you, not a picture of a model. In the end, what I liked about the picture was that she looked so much like the mannequin. While I was there, someone returned a sweater that cost $750." (Mercedes. Martin at Le Cadeau in Mayfair.)

When Mary Ellen Mark let it be known that she was not only willing but decidedly enthusiastic about coming to Miami and taking our portrait, of course we said yes.

"She is," says John Loengard, photo editor of Life magazine, "one of the finest journalist-photographers at work today, quite possibly the best."


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Her name is Camille 2,000, and she has always been the star of the show. The most important thing to her is to be an actress. She is upset because no one considers burlesque an art form anymore. She is a survivor, but she isn't hard at all. She has a real vulnerability that I liked." (The Pussycat Theater, about 1 a.m.)


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The boy and his mom (right) came over by boat for lunch. She had sunglasses on, but I asked her to take them off. You could tell she was very proud of her son, who had been a model when he was younger." (Susan and Lance Rogers at the Jockey Club.)


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I caught Lourdes Suarez on the way up to a child fashion show, waiting for the elevator. She was completely unconcerned about being photographed in her curlers. (At the Omni.)


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This man was desperately sick with hepatitis. He said he thought he got it from a dirty jail cell. I saw him two days later, up and about, trying to get some welfare-aid. He said Camillus House had been wonderful to him. The place was immaculate." (Lewis Brogdon, 27.)



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This woman (above) was given these glasses for her birthday. I told her I wanted to buy a pair, and she said, "They're $65, but they're very well made." (Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami Beach.)


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Everyone at the Lubavitch Educational Center in Miami Beach told me that the big kid (left) was the smartest boy in class. As soon as I saw him, our eyes met and I knew he was going to be fantastic. I could tell he wanted the picture to be good as much as I did. The other boy is one of his best friends." (Schneur Zalman Korf, 8, and Schneur Zalman Teitellbaum, 9.)


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This woman (above) had been a prostitute only four months, and her life was a mess. She was on methadone and had no place to live. A pimp had just given her a black eye. She was starving. I bought her a hamburger and gave her a quarter to call me the next day. She never did." (Linda, age 27.)



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I happened on two little children (right) at a birthday party near Biscayne Boulevard. There's something about this picture that makes it seem like it came from 30 years ago. I feel that way about a lot of the pictures I took here. (Marilyn Garcia, 10; Jose Angel Polaco, 2.)


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Something about this family was so strong, so American. They were proud of their church, as well they should be. (The Willis family, Church of Christ Risen in Heaven).



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Shirley's room was terrific. Those plants. Those plants in jars on the windowsill. She made them all from cuttings she found. She cared about every object in that apartment, every single thing. (Paula and Shirley, best friends.)

Mark wanted to come to Miami for a couple of reasons.
In New York, she finds that socially conscious photojournalism is out, and glossy near-lies are in. Pap sells. "Everything is People. Even Life is sometimes People."

Also, she has worked this territory in the past, having taken classic photos of the old people in Miami Beach almost a decade ago.

It seemed natural for an up-and-coming city quickly forming an image in the national mind to call in one of the day's leading artists to do its portrait. But if we had been prompted only by the preening wish to show our best features in their best light, we would have been well served to hire someone else.

Mary Ellen Mark's style is not to gild reality but to revel in it.

She demands total access to her subjects. In the late '70s, she lived for 36 days on the now defunct Ward 81 for women at Oregon State Hospital. She ate their food, got just as excited as they did on the night steak was served, and dressed in the same frowzy hand-me-downs that make a person look as if everything about her is borrowed, not just the clothes but also the situation and maybe even her identity. The result was a gallery of portraits of the damned, but the fearful and haunted faces and postures of these women were presented with dignity and tenderness.

In 1980, she visited Mother Teresa' Missions of Charity in Calcutta, and among the images that she captured is the outstretched hand of a starving woman who has just been fed but for whom the begging gesture has become so automatic she cannot turn it off.

Falkland Road, Prostitutes of Bombay is a study of several bordellos in which Mark lived and made friends with the young women, some of whom are called cage girls because they are exhibited behind bars at street level. A World champion at hanging out, Mark has a strategy of blending into the woodwork, sometimes almost literally. One of the photos in the Falkland collection is of a prostitute with a customer taken from the rafter. And this is the amazing part: When someone asked Mark whether she was concerned about being caught and might that not disturb the nature of the transaction she was there to record, Mark said, "Of course not. I had permission. I never take a picture without permission."

She was once asked why, out of all the possible Indias, she chose to take pictures of the one she did - an India of the impoverished and exploited, an India of the streets - and she answered, "I had to resist the temptation to photograph the exoticism. My concern is with the sociological rather than with the beautiful people in turbans and saris."

Her gift, beyond the rigorous demands for perfect composition she requires of each frame, is to take us to forsaken orbits, teeming with humanity at its most misbegotten, and to persist in an intense documentation of the reality until finally she finds the bond, the moment of sameness, an intense and undeniable connection between viewer and subject.

Life editor Loengard says that in the best of Mark's work he expects to find "a strange and shocking emotion, not necessarily the subject's feeling so much as hers. She often becomes involved with the subject, and she gets that involvement into the photo."

Ultimately, It was the hope of photographing her favorite subject matter that brought Mark here: that vast underground of real people caught in a mundane and heroic struggle.

All she needed was the right light to show the dark. An easy order to fill. In Miami some things may be rationed and pinched, but there are two commodities whose abundance has never been in question.

Sun and sociology.

And so we set her loose. She had 10 days, an unlimited supply of film, a full-time assistant, sometimes two, and our suggestions, which she was free to ignore or implement. When we mentioned an upcoming festival, she said: "A festival? I don't do festivals. There's nothing there. Trust me." When we said Miami is about shopping and she should consider going to a mall, she blanched. Malls were simply not her territory.

She arrived on Halloween, and we began with a visit to Biscayne Boulevard, that cluttered stretch of Route 1 that parallels the bay and leads from condo heaven in North Dade past shopping centers and hotels and fast-food joints and the Immigration and Naturalization building on 79th Street, slowly snaking downtown past motels that look haunted every night, not just at holiday time.

Two young women dressed up as a cat and as a witch caught her eye and became Mark's first mark. "They're sweet; they're really sweet," she said in her distinctive voice. She has a pretty voice. It's rich and thick, but what's most striking is that she doesn't speak in sentences so much as in dazed fragments, a sort of '60s style of speech, lots of gee-whiz adjectives and pauses. "OK, show me your tail… yeah… the tail… what a great tail." At one point, she backed into the street to get the right perspective. Cars swerved to avoid her, and she seemed not to notice. During her work there is an almost total loss of self, or perhaps an arrival at total self. It is a quality of absolute concentration, down to ignoring her appearance, fastening her dark hair in a long easy braid, and dressing in a uniform of loose dark or tan cotton garments, not quite culottes, but roomier than pants. Her look is one of unadorned peasant-style beauty, also a freeze frame from the '60s. The most surprising feature are the eyes, the eyes that see so much. They are small, brown and embedded, peering out at the world in a perpetual squint.

At the Omni, her eyes spot a little girl wearing rollers and a solemn mien, standing beside her mother in the lobby of the hotel waiting to take an elevator to a ballroom where 6-year-old Lourdes Suarez will be modeling clothes at a benefit luncheon. Mother and daughter have a perfect if eerie enmeshment: The future of the one and the past of the other are locked in one fierce handclutching present.

Mark went to dinner at Camillus House, a Catholic charity in downtown Miami that feeds up to 1,000 men (and a few women) a day, and offers free lodging to any homeless man seven nights out of the whole year. Dinner was macaroni and cheese, salad, day-old croissant donated by the Ovens of France, and water. After dinner she went to a dormitory and found Lewis, huddled on a numbered cot beneath a blanket. Brother Renee said Lewis had hepatitis and then almost apologized for the quiet demeanor of the dinner crowd. "Saturday was something else. It was the first of the month. A lot of people just got their checks. There were three stabbings in line."

She wanted some shots of kids, but not jus any kids. We suggested the Lubavitch Educational Center in Miami Beach, and Rabbi Korf said fine, delivering six or seven charming if covertly rowdy boys to Flaming Park, where, while she filmed, they made gentle mischief of one kind or another, climbing a forbidden fence and taunting each other with false, but gleefully convincing discoveries of slime on the grass.

One boy: "I know someone who ate worms."

Another: "I know someone who ate cockroaches."

The third: "I know someone who ate snails."

The fourth: "I know someone who ate mice. During the Holocaust."

At the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart she took more kids' portraits, waiting until the girls removed their jewelry as instructed by school officials.

Finally she went to church, an all-black church deep down in South Dade that might just as well have been deep up in Georgia.

“Welcome,” said the minister in the low intoning way of an old-fashioned preacher.
“Welcome because I know these visitors are our brothers and sisters same as I know they ain't no four or five heavens same as they ain't no four or five Jesuses."

Back at South Beach, at Shirley's apartment, the photo session is coining to an end. The mood is girlish, almost giggly.

"We can take a break for a minute while I reload," Mark tells her subjects.

"Now I finally know why movie stars earn the kind of money they do. This is hard work. They deserve every penny," says Shirley, the dark one, with a face and a body that is all edges and angles and dark intensity.

'They certainly do," says Paula, agreeable as always.

This attention is a big break for them. Generally, their days consist of walking around here and there and then, at night, eating dinner out of a can. The small room is hot, and they fan themselves, a slight exaggeration to the fluttering movements. They seem to enjoy that for a moment, anyway, they have glimpsed the down side of glamour.

Before she leaves, the photographer rummages through one of her many capacious canvas bags and her hands emerge triumphantly brandishing two small teddy bears.

"Here," she says, almost shyly. "I got these for both of you."
"You shouldn't have," says Shirley, a sentiment quickly echoed by Paula.
"I wanted to," says the photographer, in that pretty rolling voice.
Shirley is hugging hers. "But this must have cost a fortune."
“No.”
"Really you shouldn't have…"
"It's nothing really." She seems at great pain to prove the smallness of the gift. "Look, they were on sale. They weren't just on sale. They were half price. There's something missing. Their hat… their apron… something."

"Thank you, Mary Ellen," says Paula, and then turning to Shirley, she zaps her with a look of pure maternal admonition, "Don't you go giving this away." Paula looks meekly acquiescent. "Mary Ellen, are you married?"

"Yes, I am. Here, would you like to see his picture." She unzips a pouch attached to a belt and takes out three Polaroid snaps that show her with a bearded man. "Martin. He's a filmmaker. He's my best friend actually. I'm lucky, just like you two are lucky. I have a best friend."

"Children?"
"No, I never wanted children. With my work I really couldn't."
Shirley nods sympathetically in that universal female code: Children, children, there are no guarantees.

About her own childhood, Mary Ellen Mark is disinclined to say much. She was raised in Philadelphia, but never goes back. Her mother and father both died when she was still quite young. She has one half-brother with whom she keeps in sporadic touch at best. She studied art at the University of Pennsylvania, undergraduate and graduate school. She loves the work of Hopper for its social realism and the work of Sargent for its purity of portraiture. She's been a photographer since 1963.

She went to a big noisy coed high school where she was the head cheerleader. Her braid was a ponytail. She thinks she would not like any cheerleaders she met today.

When the 10 days are over, she reflects on her reflections.

"I think I did all right. I think I got some good stuff. I was angry earlier today because I saw a great picture, a man in this elaborate neck brace, and we circled the block twice to find him again but we couldn't. It was a perfect image of being trapped. I think a lot about Lewis, the man at Camillus House. He was sick and alone and in a bed with a number. It was perfect loneliness. That's not just Miami. It could have been anywhere in the world. You know what he said? 'I've never been treated this good in my life.'

"It's all Calcutta in the end.

"Most of the people you see who are unfortunate, they did only one thing wrong. They got born in the wrong bed to families that can't take care of them.

"My favorites I suppose were Shirley and Paula. Shirley's room was terrific. Those plants. Those plants in jars on the windowsill. She made them all from cuttings she found. They were growing.

And you know she cared about every object in that apartment, every single thing. It was neat. It was clean. That apartment stood for one thing, hope. That's what it was all about. "Hope."

END