New York States of Mind
January 2007
By Shaheen Merali
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark



"I have always used free time and weekends and disciplined myself to go out and make pictures because it is such a visually alive and interesting city. I would go all over the city, I'd go up to Harlem and then I'd go to the Park and I'd go downtown. It is not so much making a statement about New York; it is making a statement about people."

MEM: I always used to photograph in Central Park because it was so interesting and so free and alive. It was a wonderful time to be there, from the late sixties to the mid‑seventies.

SM: Could you explain to me this very precious role that Central Park has for New Yorkers? Because it is still seen as a poetic, experimental space for musicians, for writers, for readings...

MEM: That's interesting, because I did a very special series of pictures for the New Yorker a couple of years ago which I am no longer doing ‑ I am doing portraits on New York for them more now. But one of the places I did photograph is Central Park, and I found it far less interesting than I did in the sixties. It is more controlled now. There are other places in the city that I would go to before I'd go there. There are other events and gatherings that are less controlled and more interesting.

SM: Why do you think that has happened? Has it to do with the role of the mayor?

MEM: Everything is under surveillance now. I think the city has been cleaned up a lot, whereas it used to be a wealth of images. And a few years ago I was doing something on 42nd Street for a magazine and since it was so cleaned‑up it was much more difficult to get pictures, although I do still go there. But it was less spontaneous than it was before: it was more commercial.  Commercialism is much more rampant now, and even in the park everything is clearly marked and controlled.

SM: Even despite the very strong underground economy that is part of the New York scene ‑ as it is in North America as a whole really ‑ with the influx of undocumented workers who are all trying to create their own micro‑environments: their own small neighborhoods and small gatherings?

MEM: In a way it would be more interesting to go to a gathering in a neighborhood, and that is why I like Bay Ridge so much: it's very preserved there, almost like being in Middle‑America, but it's in Brooklyn. When I go to a parade there I just see another kind of reality, it's much less commercial and much more real. Of course it is very American, a very pro‑American type of environment, but it is interesting to see that and to photograph it too.

SM: How does that kind of environment work against what has been regarded as the Bush era?

MEM: It works right alongside the Bush era [laughing]. It's interesting for that reason too: it is really interesting to document it. It's a little very American place preserved right in the heart of Brooklyn.

SM: When you say "very American"...

MEM: Very patriotic. They have a great Memorial-Day Parade there.

SM: I'm going to push you a little bit on this. When you use the terms "very American", "Middle American" and "patriotic", are you thinking of an ethnic divide?

MEM: It's White American mainly. Of course it is. Although it's interesting that there's now an Arab community there, a Muslim community. So every once in while you see women who are covered but who are also waving American flags. So it is just a very patriotic little corner. It's interesting because it makes some kind of a statement about the country. I found it very, very difficult to get photographs at the parade itself. In the past I made a few, but it has always been on the fringes: I would go to these gatherings more to look at the fringe areas, and that would be where I found my pictures. And there's a very Italian community in Brooklyn which is very close to where I live in Downtown New York, right across the bridge. They always have a saint's festival, every June, and there's something very pro‑American about it, while it's also very Italian. Ethnic events and ethnic communities really are interesting.

Excerpted from a telephone interview.