new york times magazine
THE UNFLINCHING EYE
July 12, 1987
By Vicki Goldberg
PHOTOJOURNALIST MARY ELLEN MARK


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PHOTOJOURNALIST MARY ELLEN MARK
By Vicki Goldberg

Bringing back accounts of unexplored territory:


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Child of a street performer, New Delhi, 1980.


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A camp for children with cancer, Malibu, Calif., 1984.

Last winter, Mary Ellen Mark turned her fascination with autism into an assignment. At the Mothering Center in Greenwich, Conn., she stood among the mothers and children, photographing a therapy session. The small room seemed to swell up with struggle and shouts -women and children everywhere, hugging, kissing, clutching, crying out. Many of the children do not talk; they sulk, they wail and cling, they turn their eyes away and do not answer. "Liza!" one woman cried, holding her daughter down, "Damn it, Liza, I'm mad at you! If you feel so bad, think how I feel! Rejected by you every day! Liza, I want! I want!"

Mark photographed everyone while she gauged which children were most interesting. "I relate to people who have more spunk, are more open," she said. "They're better with the camera." After some time, she asked her assistant for another camera and whispered: "You know what would be really interesting?" Her whole face widened with a great smile of excitement. "To come two or three more times and then pick out a couple of people to follow at home. Liza, maybe Alex, Amy..."

She had caught a whiff of potential drama and was beginning to recognize the story's shape: one child remote, one loving, one pained. Later, Mark would give up on Alex, thinking him "too good," too conscious of the camera. "You have a sense of what you want to say about something after a few days," she says. "You have to have your opinion. It may be wrong, but you have to have one."


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Falkland Road, Bombay 1978. A picture of prostitutes solemnly waiting a man's decislon has echoes of young of young girls anywhere at a dance.


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The South Bronx, 1987. Mark prowls and waits for the chance, the scene that reveals the secrets and details of a story.


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Calcutta, 1981. Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying. "You have to be careful. If their tragedy is so great it make you cry, how does that make them feel?"

Whenever she picks up a camera, Mark, 47, puts herself in an emotional no-man's land. She claims that she doesn't take risks -"War photographers do that" - yet hers is the archetypal saga of the photojournalist who conquers obstacles and emotional shock to bring back accounts of unexplored territory: hospices for the dying, brothels in India, camps for children with cancer.

She brings to all her photographs an unflinching yet cornpassionate eye. In the midst of exotica or on the fringes of society, where she often chooses to be, she does not exaggerate the unavoidably alien, freakish qualities a less complex photographer would emphasize, but tries to find clues to what is familiar and human. Thus a picture of three Indian prostitutes solemnly, uncomfortably awaiting a man's decision becomes a poignant, harsher version of young girls at a dance. Mark says that "Falkland Road," her 1981 book on the Bombay brothels "was meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman."

Her subject matter raises an old question about photojournalism: Do photographers exploit those less fortunate than themselves for the sake of their art? Mark herself simply asks whether the poor should be ignored; many have eagerly posed for her, she says, precisely because they wished to be noticed at last. And as Richard B. Stolley, who as managing editor of Life magazine assigned to Mark many of her most important stories, puts it, "If she weren't such a good photographer, the charge would never arise."


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Dallas, 1987. The photographer defines relationships through the spaces that occur between people.


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Oregon State Hospital, Ward 8l, 1976. Background elements comment on foreground action.


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Seattle, 1983. Teen-age street toughness, the fringes of society, where Mark often chooses to be.

Mark assisted her husband, the film maker Martin Bell, on "Streetwise," a documentary about homeless teen-agers she had photographed in Seattle. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. Her own honors indude the University of Missouri's top award for a feature picture story (twice), the Page One Award, the Leica Medal of Excellence, the Canon Photo Essayist Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award (twice), the Philippe Halsman Award and numerous grants. She belongs on any list of top contemporary photojournalists with the likes of James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado and David Burnett. Stolley refers to her as "one of the top three or four in the world" and adds, "she is probably the best - how can I put this without sounding sexist? - I don't know of another woman photojournalist as good as she is now."

Photojournalism has recently scaled new heights of public esteem. Museums and galleries lavishly display pictures that were previously seen only in print. Films like "Under Fire" and "Salvador" set the photojournalist on center stage and biographies of past masters assure that the legendary glamour shines on.

Yet at a time when magazines are cutting back on photo essays in favor of twinkling pictures of media stars and token illustrations in text pieces, outlets for photojournalism are steadily diminishing. Mary Ellen Mark is one of the few photographers today whose stories have regularly appeared in such publications as Life, The Sunday Times of London, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Paris-Match, Stern and Time. And in a magazine forum that sometimes seems to be split between hardship and glitz, she has an offbeat and distinctive vision of both. She does essays on Ethiopian refugees or the elderly in Miami; then, to earn a living, she takes advertising and publicity stills for films and countless celebrity portraits.

Among photographers she admires, Mark mentions Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer who helped raise decadence to couturier status. But she mentions Diane Arbus most often. "No matter who Arbus photographed," Mark says, "she could somehow make them look a bit odd, which is nice. I like that," To call Arbus's images "a bit odd" is rather like calling Dali's a trifle neurotic; she does add that she's fascinated by Arbus's "freaks, misfits, monsters." Mark is no slouch at discerning oddity in her own work, but her photographs have never been infected by Arbus's profound and contagious malice.

No one, Mark says, has ever matched W. Eugene Smith's photo essays of the 1950's and 60's. While Arbus gave us permission to look hard at precisely those people our mothers had warned us not to stare at, Smith mapped the ground for concerned photographers' reports on life's casualties and efforts to care for them. Since her 1970 Look magazine essay on an English methadone clinic - shocking at the time - Mary Ellen Mark has combined the two photographic traditions in a manner all her own.

Where Smith made heroes of country doctors and Arbus made witches of housewives, Mark finds mainly strangers and survivors. She shares Smith's guarded optimism about the human capacity to help and Arbus's willingness to see her subjects unmasked, yet has neither Smith's moral outrage nor Arbus's moral outrageousness. Resolutely apolitical, Mark does not warn about freaks or hector for reform. Her complicated imagery suits a cynical, visually weary audience, which no longer expects either its hope or its exotica to come unalloyed. Mary Ellen Mark is our resident 35-millimeter anthropologist, sending back revelations from the fringes of what is called normal life.

"I'm just interested in people on the edges," she says. "I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. I'm always on their side. I find them more human maybe. I care about them more .... What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence."


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Rome, 1968. Director Federico Fellini on the set of "Satyricon." In perilous balances and large empty spaces, an isolated figure may carry the emotional charge of an exclamation mark.

For 10 years, whenever Mary Ellen Mark tried to photograph on Falkland Road in Bombay, she was pelted with insults and garbage. Brothels jostle each other the length of the street; women and transvestites stand in cages displaying their charms; pickpockets, drunks and customers saunter by and stare. Finally, in 1978, Mark braved Falkland Road day after day until a few women grew curious. One key to her success as a photojournalist is her ability to win the trust of people who do not trust easily. Slowly, slowly, she made friends. In the end, while she photographed the prostitutes' lovemaking and ablutions, they took her under their protection. "One time when the police came," Mark recalls, "they hid me under the bed. Then there was one customer who just kept harassing me. They finally sort of pushed him down the stairs."

"Falkland Road," the result of Mark's persistence in Bombay, is a book that is intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh. The sumptuous color is anomalous in the career of a woman whose three other books - "Passport," a collection of portraits from around the world (1974); "Ward 81," about women in a mental hospital (1979), and "Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta," (1985) - have been in black and white.

She claims not to be very technical - "Machines hate me," she says - but has learned the more elaborate lighting techniques required for color portraits and is as capable with her 2 1/4 Rollei SLX as with the 35-millimeter Leica and Nikon. Gifted with an eccentric visual imagination, she likes unlikely angles, perilous balances and large empty spaces in which an isolated figure carries the emotional charge of an exclamation mark. She defines relationships through the spaces that occur between people and frequently sets tensions humming by juxtaposing bony angles and perfect curves or calling on background figures to comment on foreground action. These sophisticated maneuvers render her subjects strange but not alien and surprising but not improbable, thereby advancing her conviction of the splendid oddness of life.

Mary Ellen Mark grew up in suburban Philadelphia and now lives in New York City in a sunny loft populated by a large gathering of the gods, potentates and animals of India in paint and wood. She has a soft voice, an eager smile and long black hair, often worn in a single braid. Her eyes are so dark and narrow that from a distance they appear totally black, as if they were nothing but apertures for light. She speaks of having been a willful child, her parents much older, her father often ill. She grew into a teen-ager with two major ambitions: to become the lead cheerleader and be popular with boys. (She did, and she was.) After taking a B.F.A. in painting and art history and deciding she wasn't good enough to be a painter, Mark took an M.A. in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, having chosen photography almost at random and fallen in love with the camera the moment she held one in her hand.

"From the very first night, that was it," she says. "It was weird. I became obsessed by it. I knew immediately it would be my life's work. I knew I had a chance of being good at it." Coming from an unhappy home, she wanted more than anything to be self-sufficient; the camera was her ticket to independence. "I wanted to travel from the beginning. As a kid, I used to dream about airplanes, before I ever flew in one. I really knew when I started photographing I wanted it to be a way of knowing different cultures, not just in other countries but in this country too, and I knew I wanted to enter other lives. I knew I wanted to be a voyeur"


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Connecticut, 1987. Working with an autistic child. "What you look for is a symbol of something in everyone's life." Photograph by David Liittschwager

She found her passion immediately and her subjects soon, but her deep commitment to stories about people on the edge only began in 1976, on Ward 81. "For years I'd planned to go live in a mental hospital," she says. "I wanted to see if I could feel something of what it was like to be set aside from society." No one was willing to fund such a project, so she traveled to the Oregon State Hospital at her own expense to live for 36 days in the state's only locked ward for women. "I think I was interested because my father had several nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized several times," she says. "But beyond that, in third grade we took a class trip to a mental hospital. I never forgot that. It was fascinating to me. Had I ever had a scientific mind I would have loved being a psychiatrist."

There are personal costs to contend with. 'You think all the time about the people you've left,' Mark says. 'It's a lot of people to live with.'

A photojournalist needs access, not always easy to gain out on the fringes. Mary Ellen Mark's care for those who teeter on the edge is instinctive, deep, almost reckless -recently she stopped her car on the way to an assignment, dashed out and pressed some money on a dazed man in the rain - and the transparency of her passion tends to win her amazing amounts of assistance. In Calcutta, she photographed Mother Teresa's mission houses but could not get to Mother Teresa herself until she met a Jesuit priest and told him her problem. He said, "Come to the motherhouse tomorrow. I promise you'll get permission." She went and found him preaching a sermon on the importance of photography.

The standard approach to photojournalism in photography schools is that the photographer must turn in a story with a beginning, a middie and an end. Mary Ellen Mark says she has never approached a story in the approved manner. "I just go into it trying to get good pictures."

There is a new wave of photojournalists, people like Gilles Peress and Alex Webb, whose highly personal reportage evinces a distrust of the conventional notion of objectivity in the media. The new photojournalism is sometimes ambiguous or determinedly artistic. Mark's work, however, keeps the traditional faith that pictures convey information and that art is most useful when it serves communication.

A good picture, she says, "shouldn't need an explanation, emotionally at least. It says something directly to you... What you look for in a picture is a metaphor, something that means something more, that makes you think about things you've seen or thought about." Perhaps her own sense of affinity reveals connections other people would not immediately see. On Ward 81 she found "not that much difference between the women's behavior and mine and my friends'. Maybe they were too sensitive and couldn't cope." Of autism she says, "What you look for is a symbol of something in everyone's life."

She never preconceives the story, which she trusts to reveal its secrets and details if given enough time. "I like to be taken by surprise," she says, an attitude that leaves her open to the magical disjunctions of life as it goes by. "You find it just by sitting there." On Falkland Road, a curtain hid a prostitute and her customer, but the woman's head and arms had escaped past the edge of the drape. "There's a guy with her behind the curtain, and his arm comes out. There are three arms. It's just there. It presents itself."

Yet it's not just there except for someone who fully expects that moments she cannot foresee will be laden with visual riches and meaning. At these moments, decisions must be made fast. "I always think: 'What does this picture mean? What's the best place to put my camera? Do I have anything extra in the picture, things in the background that will distract? Am I in the basic position that will give the essential things for this picture but not too much? What is the best way to show the elements, to make a good picture, to be graphic?"

Mark's courting of chance involves a lot of what might be called creative waiting around. It requires remaining in high gear through long periods of low-gear action. She doesn't believe in setting up shots, but once in a great while she gives surprise a helping hand. When Marlon Brando had his head shaved for "Apocalypse Now," it occurred to her she'd like to take a picture of him with a large local beetle on his pate. "If I told him to put a beetle on his head, he'd say no, but if he happened to put one on himself..." So she brought along a jar of beetles and casually set it down nearby. Lo and behold...

"I have a real good sense of predicting what will happen," Mark says, "from having done so many documentary stories. When you're really involved in a story, you almost become psychic about what to look for. So much is luck: you turn one corner and something happens. But you do get intuitions about the people you're shooting. You get a sense of where to be at the right time. You learn it. It has to do with absolute concentration." Edward Steichen once said something to the effect that if the same photographer got lucky all the time, it couldn't be just luck.

She never photographs anyone who refuses ("I'm too shy"), and she claims to be equally good at sensing when she can shoot and when she should not. Recently, she was photographing Robert, an autistic child, when the boy's eyes suddenly rolled up and his arms flailed like malfunctioning machinery: an epileptic seizure. "I didn't shoot," says Mark. "It was very dramatic, but I just couldn't. I felt terrible for the mother and grandmother, and for the boy, too. He knew I was there, and he didn't like it. If anything, I'm too meek. If anything, I'm overcautious about not shooting."

Yet she steels herself to take pictures when that seems almost impossible. "Somehow in Ethiopia I thought, 'How can I live with myself? People are dying...' But you feel you have to do it. I think that's the compensation for yourself: I'm recording an event that's important, an event that people should see. We tell ourselves that all the time...There's something shameless about me. And I think all documentry photographers that actually do come back with those pictures - there's something shameless about all of us."

Mark shoots A lot ("Film is cheap"), as many as 200 rolls on a story, which she cuts down to about 40 pictures before an editor whittles away all but 8 or 10. One day, Amy, an autistic teenager, was being massaged. Amy seldom speaks but communicates in emotionally charged cries. Terrified, she let out little animal yelps of fear, repeatedly leaped up to kiss her mother for reassurance, finally calmed down under the therapist's hands. Then she lay still, relaxing into a rare peace. By the time she sat up again, this time with a little roar of pleasure, Mark had taken six rolls. "I was thinking about how she feels about human contact," Mark says. Only one frame worked.

"I shoot a lot because I'm not sure I've got it. I'm always surprised. I never know if it will come out... Sometimes you feel you have a picture, sometimes you're right. Sometimes you're surprised when things you thought weren't good are."

She sends her negatives to her printer, then edits down, searching for tiny differences: a more desperate expression for a picture of a burial, or the one portrait out of 12 that seems to sum up the feeling at a private school, a place that had "something surreal and strange, such an abundance, and these girls were so serious and sad ...." Inviting chance, embracing the bizarre, Mark often spots some wayward touch of surrealism that temporarily deranges ordinary expectations of the world's order.

Out on a story, she says, "I have to really like the people I'm photographing. I may not like what's happening to them, but I have to believe there's something positive about them if I'm going to be involved a long time." The prostitutes were "fantastic women. They were survivors." The autistic children are "so spiritual and beautiful..."

When she's photographing, there's very little room for what you might call a life. In fact, the rest of life pales quite hopelessly by comparison.

This spring she had to stop work on the autism project to teach a workshop in India. She was not eager to teach "I feel these are the years to take pictures" - and was worn out from overwork, so she announced that she wouldn't take a camera to India. "Well, maybe one Leica, in case I get access to this one autism center in Ahmadabad. It would be a reprieve."

In Mary Ellen Mark's best pictures, the intensity of her relationship with her subjects translates onto film in full force. When she fails, it is usually because she has mistaken oddity for meaning, or found an emotion too strong for the form. The wonder is how often the expression matches the timbre of the event.

In the most tragic stories, Mark seeks deep involvements almost intuitively. "When you see people in these extreme situations," she says, "you can deal with it when you get to know them, the individual personalities. When you come every day and see what's happening to them, the severity, the sickness - which is extremely difficult to take - kind of gets lost, because you're thinking of them as people."

Involvement has it dangers. "You have to be careful if you're involved and it breaks you up. If their tragedy is so great it makes you cry, how does that make them feel? You train yourself to be strong .... And the camera is a distancing mechanism." When she left Ethiopia, she was so devastated she broke down in tears and immediately felt both embarrassed and guilty. After all, she points out, she was the one who was free to walk out. "You feel guilty because these people have really given you something incredible. No photographer can do anything without people letting them take something from them."

Many photographers have reported that they do not feel fear or horror while they are photographing; the emotions wait to close in afterward. There are personal costs for this kind of commitment; Mark says it's given her a skin problem. "You think all the time about the people you've left. You never forget any person that meant anything to you. It's a lot of people to live with."

This is all the harder for Mark because she cherishes no illusions that her photographs will make life easier for the Ethiopians or anyone else. "Any photographer who thinks that they're going to change the world has an inflated ego," she says. "But photography does open up people's vistas and their world, it does make them more understanding and tolerant." Pause. "Some people," she says.

Much of Mark's work centers on women. Although she says she would not label herself a feminist, she adds, "I certainly realize it's more difficult being a woman. I've tried to show that, the positive and negative things about being a woman...I just feel I'm better with women...I feel I can say something deeper. Not that I don't like men; I do. But I think I'll get something more superficial with men because I don't understand them at the core."

Women have had an important place in the history of photography, but few besides Margaret Bourke-White have achieved major billing as photojournalists. In the last dozen years or so, women have moved into the profession in force, many inspired by the early and singular example of Mary Ellen Mark.

Mark herself says the profession remains difficult for women for many reasons. "I don't see how a woman in documentary photography could have children," she says. "I think it's a very difficult thing to do to raise a family, and I have enormous respect for people who do it. I'd hate to do something like that and not be good at it. It's for a long time."

"This kind of work," she says, "sometimes it's a disease that gets into the blood." Recently she remarked, with a little laugh, that she was going to quit the profession and become an antiques dealer. A day later, she was happy and slightly crazed, preparing to go to Australia to shoot, then to the Soviet Union. Soon, soon, she will get to work again in an autism treatment center. "The drive is stronger than I am," Mark confesses. "Fortunately or unfortunately, I suppose I'm connected to my camera for the rest of my life."

Vicki Goldberg is the author of "Margaret Bourke-White A Biography"

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