July 1992
Bob Spitz explains
Photo Editor: Phyllis Levine

One of the most admired photojournalists in the country is having a hard time getting assignments. So she's helping her husband make movies.


Mary Ellen Mark swears she doesn't dream, and for a moment I'm inclined to believe her. All her nightmares seem to be up on the wall. With her brilliant, edgy photographs, Mark turns up glimmers of dignity in the least likely places: a state‑run sanatorium in Oregon, squalid brothels in Bombay, Seattle's punk‑infested gutters, Ethiopia's famine‑relief camps. Mark's work lacks the freak‑show futility that sometimes blinkered Diane Arbus, the photographer to whom she is often compared. If, at times, one feels the dinginess of one's own lower depths reflected in her pictures, always there are aspects ‑a look in the eyes of a young Indian prostitute, the up‑yours posture of an American street kid‑that reveal an ineffable spirit, a vital force, in the most disposable social outcasts.

Mark, left in New York City, is able to find dignity in the least likely places. Portrait by Gregory Heisler.

Still, Mark is no candidate for sainthood. A self‑proclaimed voyeur, she is the doyenne of photojournalists who swept to prominence in the post‑Blow‑Up era, when shutterbugs themselves became glamorous‑even celebrities‑and some were seen as artists.

To support her journalism, Mark worked as a set photographer in Hollywood. "It paid the bills," she says dismissively, but even her commercial work produced memorable images ‑Brando with a beetle on top of his head, and Fellini dancing with his shadow.

Mark is regarded as one of the most compelling documentary photographers in the world. Her work is widely collected and has been published in six books, including the harrowing Ward 81, about women in a Salem, Oregon, mental institution. Currently, a Mary Ellen Mark retrospective is traveling the national gallery circuit, with an anthology, 25 Years, published late last year to admiring reviews.

We're talking in the men's lavatory of an abandoned Seattle train station ‑now a film set‑ where Mark prepares to photograph an annoyingly uncooperative young starlet. "Isn't she something?" Mark asks me, through a clenched smile. "I'd like to kill her." Then, in an act of extreme charity, she contrives a photo session that makes the teenager appear both radiant and vulnerable.

This isn't your run‑of‑the‑mill bread‑and-butter job. Mark is associate producer of this movie, American Heart, along with the film's star and sometime photographer, Jeff Bridges. Her cousin wrote the script. And Mark is sleeping with the director, who happens to be her husband, Martin Bell. Avenue Pictures expects the film to be released in the fall. "It's about destitute people," Mark says between setups. "Jeff plays an ex‑con who hooks up with his neglected son (Terminator 2's Eddie Furlong] and together they're forced to confront life on the street."

Hippopotamus and Performer at the Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India, 1989.

Mark's eyes betray a bleakness; she and Bell aren't strangers to this terrain. Eight years ago they collaborated on Streetwise, a chilling documentary about Seattle's homeless teenagers that was nominated for a 1984 Academy Award. Based on her photo essay, Streetwise was a "dream project," she says. "How many photographers see their subjects evolve on the screen?" But for all its acclaim, the film proved a mixed blessing.

She grew attached to her subjects, ignoring a cardinal rule of photojournalism, and, as a result, felt a numbing helplessness as many of the kids sank deeper into despair. Or died.

"You can't change anyone's life," Mark says. "When I leave a subject, things continue much as they did before. So I've learned to just immerse myself in the present; otherwise, I'd become a basket case."

Jeff Bridges and Martin Bell on the set of "American Heart" (Martin is director), Seattle, WA, 1991.

Friends and colleagues say Mark is a notoriously easy touch. In Ethiopia, and again in India and Spain, she constantly gave money away, and in New York, many street beggars know her by name.

"Mary Ellen's greatest liability is her heart," says photographer Peter Sorel, who worked with Mark on several film assignments. "She knows each face on those proof sheets, and they haunt her."

All this talk about her involvement makes the normally cordial Mark very prickly. "Of course it affects me; you can't shut yourself off," she says, sharply. "It's a terrible situation when you go someplace and photograph a person's misfortune. It puts me in a very complicated position. Because then you leave. Our lives may go on, but you never forget any of these people. Part of my life is spoken for by these images. They're there to remind me that I took something from people that I can never return. So, in a sense, I never really leave."

Back in her New York City studio, Mark is dodging phone calls. Her retrospective has opened at the International Center of Photography (ICP), and well‑wishers are checking in to gloat over the reviews.

"It's so embarrassing," she says. "You listen to too much of this stuff and you get an exaggerated sense of your ability."

Fat chance. The walls of Mark's studio provide a surefire antidote to egomania. Every inch is covered with prints by her favorite photographers: Dmitri Baltermants, Marion Post Wolcott, Aaron Siskind, Emmet Gowin, Henri Cartier‑Bresson, Harold Feinstein, Helmut Newton, Robert Doisneau and, of course, Diane Arbus.

"Here's one Ralph Gibson took of me in my twenties," Mark says, stopping in front of a photograph hung conspicuously apart from the rest. "Isn't it a nice picture?"

In fact, it's a haunting portrait of an intense, guarded‑looking young woman, cradling a camera as though it were a wounded bird‑or a machine gun. Mark's face still conveys a tenacity, though it's been softened by age. At fifty‑two, she is striking, her demeanor a mixture of easy charm and modesty that draws you close to her, like an intimate friend. The trademark braid, now coarse and flecked with gray, swings against the small of her back, and she dresses in a jaunty downtown mix that suggests a meeting of Army/Navy store and DKNY.

Mark talks about the "early breaks" that launched her career‑how a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania rescued "this lost soul" by putting a camera in her hands, a stranger on a train arranged for darkroom space, a Fulbright allowed her to study the picture‑making process with relative ease. She arrived in New York in 1966, armed with a skimpy portfolio, and discovered a market begging to be tapped.

"I was very young and pretty," she recalls, "and an agent said, 'God, you're going to make a fortune. We'll start you out as a fashion photographer, get someone to manage you.' And I turned him down flat. It would have been a gimmick. As a woman photographer, I was still an oddity, and I wanted to do important, thought‑provoking work."

She is similarly disdainful of celebrity photographers and resents being identified with the rapacious swarm. "I find their pictures empty, too much of a trick," she says, "and the same trick over and over. I get no insight into the people they're photographing. They can't get below the surface."

She points out that it's possible to make a great image of a celebrity. "Look at Horst or Avedon or Penn‑they have unique points of view. They bring another dimension to their images. But too often pop photographers capture celebrities making assholes out of themselves. It's easy to make a fool of someone; I can do it with my eyes closed. Only I'm not interested."

Rat and Mike with a gun, Seattle, Washington, 1983.

Mark is less forthcoming about the origins of her own bleak perspective. All those pictures of starving children, the terminally ill, the disenfranchised and discarded‑the world she is drawn to record again and again‑seem to contradict her upbeat personality. After she lectures at ICP, I ask where her inspiration comes from, and she expertly deflects the question. I pursue it over lunch the next day, and once again Mark balks. She doesn't want to talk about influences, and when I ask about her family background, her eyes flash like antic strobes. She stares at me for a long moment and finally starts to speak.

"I had a weird upbringing," she says. "My parents were Jewish, but my mother became a Christian Scientist‑she was a fanatic. My dad suffered a kind of manic depression. I have a half‑brother, but we didn't grow up together. So I was lonely‑really lonely."

Her parents' moods regularly deteriorated into violent screaming jags, during which Mark was beaten and verbally abused. They convinced her that she was "a terrible child."

Once, when her father hit an emotional low, he threw food in her face. "The camera brings up a lot of that," she says. "It's an alternative way of looking at the world and at people‑the kind of people I identify with."

Consequently, Mark's people are grotesque and gorgeous, spiritual and superficial. Her need to document a world whose values have gone shamelessly awry has taken her to unlikely places. In Spain, Mark went is home with teenagers who idolized Franco and Hitler; in Kentucky, an impoverished family of four invited her to stay with them in their car; she befriended a pack of "true animals" on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey; and she hung out with street toughs in the South Bronx, Mother Teresa in Calcutta and Woody Allen in New York.

Seattle presents her with fewer emotional land mines. Mark commutes there regularly from New York, to the set of American Heart, where the nightmares are rooted in fiction and easily resolved. "I find working on this film to be completely uplifting," she tells me, as Martin Bell walks his crew through a scene. But movies are also a distraction.

"If I could just do documentary assign­ments for the rest of my life, I would be happy," Mark says. "But magazines don't have the money to do photo essays anymore, and I have to be able to support myself. So for now, I just want to help Martin make brilliant films."

A self-proclaimed voyeur, Mark mixes photojournalism with Hollywood set work. Brando during filming of “Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines.

The idea for Bell's next feature, she says, is based on the Indian circus she's followed for more than fifteen years ‑a low‑rent troupe of contortionists and animal acts that bumps around villages from Delhi to the Madras states. Bell talked a friend, novelist John Irving, into writing a script with that backdrop, and they expect to film on location sometime next year.

Right now, Mark and I are watching her husband lower Jeff Bridges onto a window-washing platform dangling perilously from Seattle's tallest building. To his credit, Bridges appears unfazed. He flashes that dozy three‑million‑dollar‑a‑film grin and gazes out at the lush expanse of Pacific coast that reaches deep into Canada. Then, from beneath his sweater, he produces a compact Widelux and begins shooting the scenery‑seventy‑seven floors below.

"Photographers!" Mark huffs, pro­nouncing it much as George Bush does liberal. "There ought to be a law."

Bob Spitz writes regularly about the arts for Mirabella.