The most important talent any photojournalist can have is the knack simply to be there. Over the past 25 years, Mary Ellen Mark has consistently demonstrated a remarkable ability for gaining access to situations that might daunt other photographers ‑ and once there, to record dramatic and emotionally moving images. As a result, she has become one of the most important documentary photographers working today, taking her place alongside such contemporaries as Sebastiao Salgado, Eugene Richards, Susan Meiselas and a handful of others. A marvelous exhibition of Ms. Mark’s work opens today at the International Center of Photography Midtown. It was organized by Mary Ann Fulton of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester.
Like many other photographers, Ms. Mark achieved her first success depicting people from other cultures. In her case, a Fulbright grant in 1965 enabled her to spend two years photographing in Turkey and throughout Europe. On her return to New York, she began to photograph for magazines, and has continued to do so since.
Like biographers, documentary photographers are often drawn to subjects close to their hearts, and there is a particular character to the stories that Ms. Mark has produced over the years. Her photographs often focus on people outside the bounds of conventional society, whether there by choice or circumstance. For "Ward 81," published in 1979 by Simon & Schuster, she photographed women in the maximum security section of an Oregon mental hospital. Other projects have focused on such subjects as prostitutes in Bombay, India, Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta, India, and homeless families in America.
Children caught in the grips of poverty and disease figure prominently in Ms. Mark's work. Her best‑known photo essay, a story of teen‑age runaways in Seattle, appeared in Life magazine in July 1983. Later, Ms. Mark worked with her husband, Martin Bell, and the writer Cheryl McCall on a documentary about the children she had met during the project; the resulting film, "Streetwise," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984.
The world Ms. Mark depicts is a harsh one. To some extend this reflects the biases of photojournalism itself, which favors dramatic and newsworthy troubles rather than ordinary lives. But the difficulties faced by the people in Ms Mark's pictures often transcend the ordinary tragedies of life and take on a moral dimension.
In fact, the closest parallels to Ms. Mark's vision are to be found not in the work of documentary photographers like W. Eugene Smith or Dorothea Lange, who were concerned with achieving social change through their pictures, but in the riveting, disturbing images of Diane Arbus. For both artists, photography gives a cloak of public truth to visions that are in the end intensely private and personal.
Ms. Mark, though, remains committed to photojournalism, to describing events and people in the world, rather than using distinctive stylistic devices to impose a particular world view on them. In contrast to the almost painful bluntness of Arbus's best works, Ms. Mark's photographs are elegantly composed, and frequently lyrical in their description. This has the effect of bringing the line between the apparently normal and the freakish closer to home, and thereby questioning more forcefully the differences between them.
"The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California,1987," by Mary Ellen Mark, at the International Center of Photography Midtown.
Ms. Mark has repeatedly proclaimed her interest in depicting the "unfamous." In another aspect of her career, though, her work as a still photographer for movies, she has frequently been called on to photograph the very famous. (An image of a glowering Marlon Brando with a giant beetle on his bald pate, shot during the filming of "Apocalypse Now,” seems particularly out of place here.) But even this side of her work seems of a piece with her other pictures ‑ notably the most recent images here, of circus performers in India. Whether on a movie set or in a circus, Ms. Mark seems to suggest performers are in the their own way as much outsiders as asylum inmates or runaways.
Her movie work may have led Ms. Mark to her often stated belief that a good magazine essay should emphasize strong single pictures, rather than the unified sequence of images that has long been held up as the model for successful photo stories. In fact, many of Ms. Mark's most familiar documentary pictures have the narrative completeness and graphic impact of movie stills; one of the strengths of her work is her ability to give her pictures the dramatic directness of a well‑made script.
For all their trappings of objectivity ‑ for all that they fit into familiar styles of documentary ‑these pictures incorporate visual themes to which Ms. Mark returns repeatedly. For example, there's the curious recurring image of the beheaded figure: over and over, Ms. Mark photographs people in such a way that their heads appear to be separated from their bodies. These range from an image of a contortionist in an Indian circus, bent so far over backward that her head appears between her feet, to a picture of a mustachioed animal trainer whose face is encircled by an elephant's trunk. Motifs of this sort demonstrate the link in Ms. Mark's photographs between the public and the personal.
For all its many strengths, this exhibition (and the book that accompanies it, published by Bulfinch Press) offers a curiously limited view of Ms. Mark's work. None of the photographer's extensive work in color is included ‑ according to the catalogue, because of the photographer's preference for her black‑and‑white work. In a show billed as a retrospective, this is a serious omission. Moreover, much of the work in the exhibition is recent, with two‑thirds of the pictures made since 1987. As a result, the show offers little opportunity to see how Ms. Mark's eye, and interests, have developed.
Despite these flaws, this is a challenging and moving exhibition. Ms. Mark incorporates the stylistic devices and working methods of documentary photography ‑ with its connections to sociology ‑into a stark vision that addresses questions of the nature and meaning of existence. Hers is an essentially tragic and apolitical vision of life, and doesn't distinguish between the suffering that is inherent in life and that caused by social forces. In many ways, it seems more appropriate to view her pictures here, where their metaphorical dimensions can be more clearly seen and considered, than in the pages of magazines, where they too often serve simply to provide readers with the vicarious experience of other people's troubles.
"Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years" remains at the International Center of Photography Midtown, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43d Street, through Nov. 17.