Chitra, Tracy and Tulsi Das, Great Bombay Circus, Limdi, India, 1989
India continues to fascinate Mary Ellen Mark. She visited there first in 1968 after graduating from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1974 she included several photographs of India in her first book, Passport. Since then she has returned to India several times and has completed two books devoted to Indian subjects, Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (1981) and Untitled 39: Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta (1985). Her latest Indian journeys have resulted in a new collection of photographs of Indian circuses, now on display at the Gallery for Fine Photography and published in Mark's newest book, a retrospective of her career, Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years (1991).
Mark's work is generally classified under the category of social documentary photography and she is closely associated with those "concerned photographers" who hope that their work will have some sort of beneficial effect on society. These artists, such as W. Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks, Eugene Richards, and Sebastiao Salgado, often take as their subjects people who live, as Mark puts it, "on the edges… people who haven't had the best breaks in society."
Mark has concentrated primarily on subjects in keeping with the concerned photography genre ‑women in a locked ward in a mental hospital (Ward 81,1979), famine in Ethiopia, runaway kids in Seattle (Streetwise, 1988), children with cancer, autistic children, the homeless. She doesn't, however, hold out much hope that her photographs will actually help to improve the lives of her subjects. There just aren't many opportunities these days for a photograph to have the kind of impact that Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" had in securing federal aid for the needy. "I don't think that photographs change anything," Mark told a group of students at a Friends of Photography workshop in 1984. "I don't think that they change the social situation but I think many people live such incredibly sheltered lives that they close off a lot of the things that are important to look at."
Like Diane Arbus, to whom she is sometimes (superficially) compared, Mark shows us many people whom we probably will never see or come to know ourselves. Yet, however foreign her subjects might be to some of us, they do not appear completely unfamiliar. As photo historian and critic Vicki Goldberg has pointed out, "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."
The same kind of familiarity, surrounded by the bizarre, is also evident in Mark's Indian circus pictures. The circus people are often pictured with animals who are obviously valued and loved, emotions with which any pet lover can easily identify. One of the most poignant of these portraits shows Dr. Han Prakash, a clown, holding his sleeping monkey on his chest. In a strange yet affectionate photograph, twin brothers Tulsi and Basant are dressed in gorilla costumes; one of the brothers cradles a drowsy puppy in his arms. At the Great Bombay Circus a clown hugs a rabbit. Mira the Chimpanzee wears a dress, a bow on her head, tennis shoes on her feet and sits with her arm around her trainer. Ram Prakash Singh stands with his elephant's trunk wrapped lovingly around his neck. Even Moti the Performing Vulture seems like a pet to two clowns in the Great Jumbo Circus.
Yet this familiarity does not preclude surprise. What exactly does a hippopotamus do in a circus anyway ("Hippopotamus and Performer, Great Rayman Circus, Madras")? What about vultures? How does John Wayne fit into the Indian circus repertoire ("Usman the Clown with William and Albert, Who Have Been Inspired by John Wayne, Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India")?
Mark brings us close to the circus people's lives, but she doesn't show us much of their private existence, as she did so intimately in Falkland Road. She is not very concerned with her subjects' domestic lives or with their place in the world outside the confines of the circus, as Bruce Davidson was in his "Jimmy the Dwarf' essay. She doesn't show much action either‑the crowds at the circuses, the crews setting up and taking down the tents‑as Jill Freedman did in Circus Days. Mark's story is not the circus itself but the people, and in their portraits she has chosen to present their circus identities, recognizing, perhaps, that their talents and their acts are inseparable from their beings and that it is in this guise that they would most want to be seen.
Mark's circus portraits do not tell the definitive story of the Indian circus but, instead, rely on the self‑revealing qualities of honest portraiture to tell us about the people who live this strange, nomadic life. By depicting basic human emotions and allowing her subjects to retain their sense of dignity and worth, Mark has enabled us to understand something about this culture and the people, even though they both remain somewhat mysterious to us.
As Mark told Marianne Fulton, who wrote the introduction to 25 Years, "I'm trying to look for certain universals -universals that stand for things we all feel. That's why an exotic picture doesn't interest me per se. I go to India to look again because it is a raw and open country. I love it. I think things are openly passionate there… I want to see them as they relate to my own culture and other cultures. I don't want to see them as some exotic magic ritual… I look for things that cross cultural boundaries.
Mark refers to circus people as "perfectionists," whose lives often depend on doing their acts exactly right. "(In) one act," she relates, "this guy balances on his head while swinging on a swing seventy feet in the air. I said to him, 'That's incredible! What happens if you fall?' and he replied, 'Death comes." Mark's photographs are as direct as that answer.