Mary Ellen Mark's photographs of women living in a mental hospital are at once explosive, repulsive and banal. Because their content touches on the dark edges of everyone's morbid fears, the effect of her work is likely to change radically from viewer to viewer. If one is hurriedly impatient, these images will come off as routine photo‑documentation, tinged with intimations of Diane Arbus's celebrated studies of America’s freakish underworld. If one is squeamish, Mark's pictures of women writhing in self‑imposed pain will be disturbing, even shocking. But the cool, attentive eye will find them more than simply moving. It will discover a rich and intricate vein of information‑studies, in effect, of common human experience wrenched at last one turn too far, beyond the normal groove of temporary grief or despair.
Inside Oregon State Hospital: A look at people wrenched one turn too far.
More than 30 of these searing images, gathered in a month's residence at the Oregon State Hospital in 1976, are currently lining the clean, well lighted walls of the Leo Castelli uptown gallery in New York City. Mark, a 36‑year‑old journalistic photographer who earns her keep primarily from magazines, lived in the hospital's women's ward for more than one month, quietly winning the confidence of the patients. It is not only obvious in these photographs that she is close to her subjects‑there is no pretense to impassivity or objectivity, as in Arbus. It is also clear that she plays favorites, photographing certain women over and over, women who are not afraid to unbend before the lens, even to perform roles overtly comic and tragic with a consistent, almost professional, finesse.
Granted this penchant for theatricality, there are no tricks in Mark's approach. She frames her subjects usually alone in the center of her lens whether they are leaping hysterically in the air in a brief moment of sheer joy‑or standing, soaking, beneath the shower, staring glumly ahead. Over and again, Mark bluntly shows us chains, straps and handcuffs‑evidence of self‑destructive passions so strong they must be restrained. In one image, a woman is kept from self‑violence by a row of attendants holding her arms down, while one of them slips a restraining muzzle between her tongue and gnashing teeth. Often women are seen doubled up in contorted fetal locks, alone in empty rooms. There is also evidence of desperate love -women embracing and holding each other, forming a human shell around inhuman, hellish fears.
Grim chords: Michel Foucault, the supreme modern historian of insanity, claims that the definition of madness differs considerably from era to era and place to place ‑in brief, that it is as variable and potential a state as any other. It is our awareness of this fact that makes Mark's work possible and her images fascinating, even when they touch the deepest, grimmest chords, as in her photograph of the pretty blond girl, "Brenda," who sits calmly on the edge of her bed. A closer look reveals deadly signs: there are slash marks on her wrist; a blackened print of the Mona Lisa hangs behind her; the words "I wish to die" are scrawled on the wall. In another time, we might have looked away, uninvolved. Now we look not only at the photographic subject ‑with compassion‑ but into ourselves, with care.