Images That Won't Let Go of the Eye
Friday, October 18, 1996

'Indian Circus," a 1989 photograph of twin dwarfs by Mary Ellen Mark, at the School of Visual Arts.

Seven years ago, Mary Ellen Mark went to the Great Famous Circus in Calcutta, India, and took a picture of twin dwarfs, Tulsi and Basant, dressed in gorilla suits. In the picture, one twin has his gorilla mask on and cradles a puppy in his arms; the other brother carries his gorilla mask in front of him, so we can see his human head. Of the four faces visible in the portrait ‑ one human, two gorilla, one dog ‑ the human face is most disquieting.

The dwarf has his own head of wild‑looking gorilla hair, and his eyes are staring accusingly into the lens. You would like to look away, but you can't, and he knows it. After all, he makes a living from other people's curiosity.

Ms. Mark, the winner of the School of Visual Arts Masters Series Award this year and the subject of a small retrospective at the school's gallery, does not like to be compared to Diane Arbus (she prefers to be linked to Henri Cartier‑Bresson and, W. Eugene Smith), but there is still something to the Arbus comparison. Ms. Mark photographs dwarfs, contortionists, psychotics, lepers, drug addicts and Street urchins. Like Arbus, she pictures them straightforwardly, frontally and often in masks and costumes. But there is a difference: Arbus has a Gothic sensibility Ms. Mark a Surrealist one.

Arbus's pictures often feature a dramatic surrounding ‑ a darkening sky or a wide meadow ‑that brings out the tragic deformity. Ms. Mark more often cuts her subjects off from their surroundings, tightly framing their peculiarities. She is particularly partial to disembodied heads.

One of the most shocking images in the show is a pale white leper whose eyeless head is held between the two large black arms of a nurse at the patient's bedside. The nurse seems to be presenting the horror to us, beaming. The shock of that picture is nearly matched by another, featuring the head of a mental patient floating above the suds of her bath water, with her hair flopped over the side of the tub, her eyes round and staring, her body invisible. These heads are disturbing not just as surreal objects but because they are heads without the means to get out of the lens's way.

In the world of documentary photography, there is a typology of consent. There are those who cannot get away, because they are dead, sick, sleeping or trapped. There are those who can easily bolt. And then there are people who know that you cannot get away because they are too entrancing. Circus performers belong in the last category, and that may be why Ms. Mark finds them tantalizing subjects.

In 1989, Ms. Mark took "Contortionist With Her Puppy Sweety" at the Great Raj Kamal Circus in Upleta, India. In the picture, a young girl in sequined panties arches her back so far that her white‑socked feet stand right next to her head. On her forehead is a bindi dot, and on one of her shiny black pigtails sits a mournful‑looking puppy, with a bindi on its forehead, too. Even though the girl's head appears detached from the body, the mood is bright and cheery, the contortion a talent rather than a liability. Her costume and her props indicate that she has cultivated her own oddity.

Masks and costumes play a crucial role in the game of consent, giving subjects the illusion that they are in control of their own images.

The difference between the masked and the unmasked is evident in the portrait of two Gypsy teenagers in a trailer park in Barcelona, Spain. The girl, unmasked, is leaning on a boy's shoulder and looking off into the distance, away from the photographer. The boy stares boldly into the camera, through the slits of a butterfly mask. The mask seems to give him the cover he needs to look at the photographer directly. But it does not actually protect him from being seen.

The same goes for one of Ms. Mark's most celebrated portraits, a picture of a street child in Trabzon, Turkey, taken in 1965. Though the child is not in a mask, she is putting on a show, acting the part of a temptress; in fact, she may be a prostitute. She is standing in contrapposto, with one forefinger touching her chin in a coy gesture.

She smiles as if she thinks she has pulled off the disguise. But her pose only accentuates the reality. Her white shoes and socks are filthy, and there's a scar right between her eyes that seems to have been won in a street fight. She's not so much a catch as caught. She knows she has our attention, but she seems not to see why.

In the introduction to "Untitled," a posthumous book of her photographs of the mentally retarded, Diane Arbus addressed, at least glancingly, the futility of disguises, whether they are Halloween masks or ordinary smiles: "Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way, and that's what people observe."

"The Masters Series: Mary Ellen Mark" remains at the Visual Arts Museum at the School of Visual Arts, 209 East 23d Street, Manhattan, through Nov. 1.