Photo by Martin Bell
Zooming in on Mary Ellen Mark
THE NEXT BEST THING to having a picture of photographer Mary Ellen Mark by Mary Ellen Mark (she declined to look through both sides of the lens) is having a portrait of her by her film-maker husband, Martin Bell. So one Sunday morning last month, they walked out of their SoHo loft, assistant in tow, and came up with this happy specimen for us. For some of Mark's own extraordinary work, turn to page 16.
For 25 years, Mary Ellen Mark has covered the globe with her cameras, documenting the lives of the afflicted, the dispossessed, and the forgotten.
Photo by Martin Bell
Mary Ellen Mark with the tool of her trade in SoHo
BOMBAY, 1978. Sari-clad prostitutes are hustling on Falkland Road, a narrow street of shabby blue buildings with peeling paint in this sprawling Indian metropolis. Vendors and watercarriers bustle along the sidewalk as plaintive women and girls (some no more than 11 years old) and their world-weary madams beckon from caged, first-floor cubicles. Mary Ellen Mark, '62 FA, '64 ASC, has been hanging around the street for days, surrounded by sullen prostitutes and transvestites who stare suspiciously at her fair skin, her braided hair, and her foreign looking shirt and trousers. They sling garbage, cold water, and insults in her face for invading their turf. Mark is not soliciting customers, however. She is trying to win the confidence of the prostitutes and their madams so they will let her document their lives.
"I tried not to attract attention, but not being Indian, of course I was an oddity," recalls Mark today, nearly 14 years later. She says she stayed in a hotel but returned to the street every morning: ' 'I couldn't wait to get back to work. Each day was so amazing."
Mark always brought along two small leather bags to Falkland Road-one for flash equipment and the other stuffed with two Leicas and a Nikon. Sometimes, she arrived with an Indian assistant who served as translator. But more often than not, she was alone and relied on sign language.
"For 10 years, ever since my first trip to India when I discovered this street, I was determined, " says Mark "to record the severe existence of these women. I wanted to tell their story. I wanted to show what it's like to be a young woman selling your body-it's a pretty harsh thing-and I wanted to know how they felt about it." A decade passed before Mark had the time and wherewithal to realize her ambition. But, as it usually does in her life, persistence paid off.
On a photo assignment for the American edition of GEO, Mark returned to Falkland Road, where she gradually earned the trust of the prostitutes, going to cafés with them, even taking cover with them during police raids. The women found Mark puzzling. She was 38 years old and unmarried. And she didn't even wear a brassiere.
"I think the reason why I was finally accepted," Mark reflects in her book, Falkland Road, "was because I was single-alone in the world like they were. One madam told me, 'We are sisters. You and I are fated for the same life. Every night, I say my prayers and I sleep alone.'
A leprosy patient with her nurse at the National Hansen's Disease Center in Louisiana, 1990
A devotee at a Muslim shrine in Uttar Pradesh, India, 1989
Students picking flowers at Special School for Blind Children No. 5 in Kiev, the Ukraine, 1987
Mark became part of the daily scene, photographing the women of Falkland Road from October of 1978 to January of 1979 as they stoically went about their business. "I felt that this street was unique because it was so raw. As if time had stopped," she explains. But, as she says, the pictures she took "also relate to poverty and universal themes."
Although she had been given the assignment by GEO, the magazine never ran the story. "People are afraid of strong emotional content," says Mark. She ended up selling the work to the German magazine Stern, then to Alfred A. Knopf, which, in 1981, published the 65 color photographs that make up Falkland Road.
Mark prefers shooting in black and white, but magazines often insist on color. "I'm not sorry I used color in Bombay, though," she says, "because it gave the photographs a heightened sense of reality. And color was the one dignified thing the prostitutes had in their lives-the way they dressed and decorated their rooms."
The portraits, which are more stark than sensual, are compassionate images of individuals like 17-year-old Asha, who Mark says was one of the most beautiful young women she had ever seen. Beautiful, but desperately unhappy. In Falkland Road, Mark writes: “Asha dreamed of becoming a servant. Once she said to me, “What kind of god is this-to give me this face and then to put me in these surroundings."
Mark's connection with her subjects is unusually personal. She tried hard to find Asha work as a maid. "I photograph the victims of society because I care about them," she says, adding that "the separation from that story was very difficult, because I thought I would never see the women again." Mark was right. When she returned to Bombay last year, the faces on Falkland Road had changed. She recognized only one old madam. But the women she met and photographed nearly a dozen years earlier are indelibly imprinted on her heart. And fixed forever on film.
Mary Ellen Mark is not a voyeur but a social documentarian with a mission-to show us the lives of the "unfamous," as she calls them, the dispossessed, the homeless, the mentally ill, the outcasts, the forgotten. She has traveled long distances physically and emotionally-to capture images that cut across frontiers and expose the universality of human misery.
"I'm not a crusader," she insists, "I'm not out to change the world-that would be assuming so much, to think I could. But I'm very driven to make photographs that are strong and that show a condition. And, of course, I want to evoke a response in people who see these photographs. If you call that raising consciousness, fine."
Laurie in a Ward 81 bathtub, 1976
SALEM, OREGON, 1976. Mary Ellen Mark is living in a small cell off Ward 81, the women's locked security unit of a state mental institution. Every day, she gets up at sunrise, braids her long, raven hair, puts on comfortable working clothes, and unlocks the door of her tiny cubicle. Unlike her neighbors, who are confined by no choice of their own, Mark is free to come and go as she pleases. She is voluntarily spending five weeks here because she wants to take pictures of the inmates of the hospital and capture the terrible reality of confinement.
"I've always been claustrophobic," says Mark, describing the experience, "so to me there is nothing more terrible than the double confinement of a mental institution, where you are restrained by bars and your mind is unable to work. I was really struck by the women's loneliness and isolation.” Because the mentally ill are very open, Mark feels they tell us about inhibition "all those things we hide so much."
After several weeks, Mark's hair and clothes became messy and disheveled. "You always begin to take on the mannerisms of your environment," she explains, adding that "the mentally ill are different from us only in the sense that they can't cope with society because their feelings are on the edge."
The photographs of the women on Ward 81 capture familiar emotions of fear, grief, and despair blown up to pathological proportions. "Ever since a third-grade class trip to a local mental hospital," says Mark, "and perhaps because my father was institutionalized for depression, mental illness has been a theme in my life. I continue to want to reexamine it”.
In the early '70s, Mark worked on the set of Milos Forman's film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, taking publicity photos of the director and the actors on location at Oregon State Hospital. It was then that she got to know the hospital director. Two years later, she persuaded him to let her live in the women's maximum security ward, along with writer Karen Jacobs Folger, with whom she collaborated on the book Ward 81.
The experience helped Mark establish her modus operandi. "I realized that I wanted to spend a long period of time in one place to get to know the people I was photographing," she explains: "I am always looking for a moment, for an emotion that will express their lives. That's really important to me."
Mark felt a kinship with the women, so many of whom came from unhappy homes and dysfunctional families like her own. She grew up in Elkins Park, a middle-class Philadelphia suburb, where she always felt like an outsider: ' 'I remember, as a child of 8, walking home from school and saying, 'I've got to get out.' I felt trapped in a home that wasn't happy. It was a lonely and isolating time. My father was always in and out of hospitals. He had several heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. It was all very unstable. Sometimes, I was built up, but more often, I was taken down. It was not a happy or supportive home.' ' To compensate, Mark became a cheerleader in high school and took art classes.
Money was always a problem. Mark worked from the time she was 15, on weekends in a clothing store and all through college at a boutique. "I always knew I would have to make it on my own," she says. “I guess you could say,” she adds, "that an unhappy childhood drove me."
But her destination was uncertain. As a student at Penn, Mark spent a lot of time in Houston Hall and went to fraternity parties, but she never felt part of the mainstream. After she earned her B.F.A. in painting and art history, she worked briefly in the drafting room of a city planner, an experience she hated.
Then came the first turning point in her life.
"I got a full scholarship to the Annenberg School, which I never could have afforded," says Mark. "I owe everything," she continues, "to Gilbert Seldes. [Seldes was the first dean of Penn's communications school, brand new back then.] Annenberg was fabulous-more of an art school than it is now. It was an incredible opportunity ! And they gave you a wealth of supplies and encouragement. I remember two really great teachers-Lou Barlow, who taught TV and Lou Glessman, who taught visual communications. Unlike my home life, it was a very nurturing environment."
“Mary Ellen has this rare ability to take pictures of people in their own environment – while they know their picture is being taken- and say something absolutely truthful about them.” -PETER MEYER, News Editor, Life
Christopher, in Sandgap, Ky., 1990
Heroin addict behind a door in London, 1969
The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, 1987
Halloween boy, Texas 1983
Callie and Harvey Flannery, McKee, Ky., 1990
Bridesmaids, Sydney, Australia, 1987
The moment the school lent Mark a Leica camera and some film, she fell instantly and permanently in love with photography: "I still remember the first day I went out with the camera. I knew that was it! I had found my life's work. It was the contact with the street and the people that I loved. It wasn't the camera per se-the machine-but the access to all the things I wanted to see and all the places I wanted to go. I became obsessed by photography."
Actress Candice Bergen, who was studying at Penn at that time and remains one of Mark's closest friends, was so taken with her dedication that she originally aspired to be a photojournalist, too. "Watching Mary Ellen working day and night, heart and soul-living, breathing photography-it quickly became clear to me that I did not have her courage, her commitment,” Bergen later wrote in her autobiography, Knock Wood.
In March of 1964, The Pennsylvania Gazette published Mark's first professional assignment-photographs of six students in the College for Women (among them, one “Cappy” Bergen). Then, as now, Mark worked overtime to deliver the work. "For the first time in my life, I have found something I am excited about and which provides me with the very important feeling of accomplishment," she told then-editor Robert "Dusty" Rhodes.
Unlike painting, which she had found a lonely pursuit, photography gave Mark a sense of connection with the world she had never known. The camera became an extension of her, and through its lens, perhaps for the first time in her life, she could give full expression to her emotions. Having grown up in a dimly lit and forbidding house, Mark found her life suddenly flooded with light. "The camera put me into worlds that I would never, ever have gone into,” she explains.
Mark had no interest in settling down and starting a family. She was married briefly to her college boyfriend ("a really solid person"), but domesticity prevented her from working and traveling. When she won a Fulbright scholarship to Turkey in 1965, Mark left Philadelphia for good. "Mary Ellen always yearned to escape," recalls a friend, "and the camera provided the wheels to move on. It was her passport." Limitless curiosity about the lives of others took her from Istanbul to Greece, then on to Germany, the Netherlands, England, and Mexico. Her gypsy soul was always attracted to those who lived on the fringes and to life's survivors. Many of the photographs she took were of teenagers, because, Mark says, "adolescence is such a transparent time -the emotions are right on the surface.” She returned with pictures of such strength that they were published as her first book, Passport. They also enabled her to find magazine work in New York City.
During the '60s, Mark contributed frequently to Jubilee, a now-defunct Catholic magazine that did "great documentary stories." She also got steady work shooting movie production stills for film studios. But her first big career break came in 1969. As a student at Penn, Mark had met visiting LOOK magazine editor Patricia Carbine, who had been impressed with her work and now gave her an assignment to go to Italy to photograph Federico Fellini on the set of Fellini Satyricon.
While in Rome, Mark learned of a unique methadone clinic in London and convinced LOOK to let her take portraits of the addicts. "What the English Are Doing About Heroin" was published to great acclaim the following year.
On exhibit: Mother Teresa in Calcutta, 1980
MANHATTAN, 1991. In the crush of hundreds of people surrounding her at the opening of her 25 year retrospective at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan, Mary Ellen Mark is easy to spot. Her waist-length hair, intense dark eyes, and black dress dramatized by silver Indian jewelry make her stand out in the crowd. Yet her striking appearance is no match for the compelling faces staring out at the viewers from the walls.
They are haunting images in black and white, shot for magazines all over the world or on subsidized grants-the terminally ill at Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta; mentally ill patients at a Chinese hospital; impoverished and disenfranchised children in South Dallas and Chicago, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Los Angeles; delinquent juveniles in Seattle; even cruel-eyed youths acting out their power fantasies at an Aryan Nations rally in Idaho.
The exhibition, which will be shown throughout the United States and in Europe over the next three years, portrays the effects of poverty, mental anguish, and confinement on people's lives.
The 125 photographs in the traveling exhibition were selected by Mark and Marianne Fulton, senior curator of the museum and author of the companion photo book, Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, published by Bulfinch Press in association with the museum. The two women spent countless hours poring over thousands of photographs in order to choose the strongest images. They got editing help from Terri Barbero, Mark's longtime studio assistant, and Martin Bell, the British-born documentary film-maker who has been manned to Mark for almost 10 years.
"It was really a hard job,” says Fulton: "Mary Ellen has an absolutely wonderful body of work, but you have to make these terrible choices to leave things out that don't fit. Late one night, we spread our selection of photographs on a table, and Mary Ellen let Martin and me do the sequencing. We were putting them together to show her interest in universals."
There are precedents for Mark's photographs, says Fulton, in the work of Margaret Bourke White, Dorothea Lange, and W. Eugene Smith, all three of whom tackled difficult subjects. "But Mary Ellen is so much herself that it's hand to compare her to any other photographer," says Fulton, before venturing: "Maybe she's like Eugene Smith in her passionate commitment to photography and to the people she photographs-and because she comes up with a single dynamite photograph that tells a story. And like Margaret Bourke White, Mary Ellen has tremendous energy to push herself beyond normal physical exertion to get the photograph.”
"She goes to the heart of the issue," adds Fulton, "to the core of people. She would be a terrific psychoanalyst because she is so nonjudgmental and because she is really interested in the forces that come to bear on people's lives. I would certainly rank her with the top three or four documentary photographers in the world today."
“I think it's dishonest to make friends with someone and then suddenly whip out your camera. I immediately show my camera so they know I'm there to take pictures, to show their lives.”-MARY ELLEN MARK
Mark's work contrasts sharply with that of the better-known American photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose staged photographs of such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg and Clint Eastwood for pop magazines like Vanity Fair have made her a celebrity in her own right. Mark prefers to take pictures of subjects at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
“I have nothing against famous people," Mark says with a smile, "I've photographed hundreds of them. It's just that I can get closer to the unfamous because they haven't been overphotographed. I'm not really a conceptualist or a stylist. I just think reality is so much more interesting."
Lillie with rag doll in Seattle, 1983
SEATTLE, 1983. It is 6:00 a.m. on an April morning and Mary Ellen Mark is climbing a ladder into an abandoned building. It is dark and deserted and terrifying; broken glass and rotten food attest to the fact that people are living here. Mark is in search of runaway children. Soon she will meet Tiny and Lillie, Mike and Rat, Dewayne arid Laurie, a handful of the more than one million American children between 11 and 17 years old who run away from home each year, too often becoming panhandlers, thieves, addicts, and prostitutes. On assignment for Life magazine with writer Cheryl McCall, Mark is creating what will become her best-known photo essay. In 18 riveting pictures, she will introduce millions of readers to urban misery with a human face.
Not only did Mark photograph the lost children of Seattle, she took them into her heart. She considered adopting Tiny, a fragile 13-year-old prostitute, and taking her back to New York. But Tiny didn't want to get off the street. "It's incredibly pretentious," says Mark, "to think you can change people's lives. At most, my pictures may contribute to public awareness." She believes that if she can change people's attitudes, then perhaps the Government or corporations will put money into ameliorative programs.
Mark was so captivated by the kids she got to know during her three-week assignment to photograph them that she
convinced her husband to make a documentary film about their lives. The film, Streetwise, a year in the making, was released in 1984. It was nominated for an Academy Award. "It can be found in the documentary section of any video store," says Mark proudly.
After the documentary was released, Tiny received several job offers from the film world, but she was not emotionally
strong enough to pursue them. Now 23 years old, she is serving a prison sentence. "At least, she'll be drug-free for a year," says Mark, who has tried to help Tiny from time to time.
Last fall, Mark returned to Seattle as associate producer of American Heart, a film directed by her husband, written by her cousin Peter Silverman, and starring Jeff Bridges and Eddie Furlong. She spent two months on the set taking film stills. "It's a funny, sad, and beautiful script about a dysfunctional family," Mark says, adding, "It's the story of a guy who is always in and out of trouble. And it's about how difficult it is to change your life."
Mark enjoys working with her husband, whom she met in England when she was taking stills during the filming of Ragtime and he was making a documentary on James Cagney. "I never thought I'd marry again,” says Mark: “I was so sure I'd always be alone. But Martin and I are really compatible. Although our work is very different, it's complementary. He has taught me a lot about writing and editing. And I have learned a great deal about human nature from watching great actors portray emotions."
Relatives in Tunica, Mississippi, 1990
MISSISSIPPI, 1990. The sun is coming up as Victoria Kohn and Mary Ellen Mark leave their motel room, get into their rented car, and drive to Tunica, where more than half of the residents live below the poverty line. The visitors are spending three weeks in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Texas to shoot "The Rural Face of Poverty" for Fortune magazine. Kohn, the reporter, has done the research and made contacts with social-service workers to find some subjects.
"It was an incredible experience working with Mary Ellen for a lot of reasons," recalls Kohn: "She is really an intense person and totally committed to whatever she is working on. Not only is she extremely intelligent, but she's one of the most intuitive people I've ever met. Some people accuse Mary Ellen of manipulating the situation -of setting up shots-because they can't believe the pictures she gets. A perfect example is the portrait in which three young people are sucking their thumbs."
Kohn says it is a portrait of a highly dysfunctional family: "We visited them every day, which makes a huge difference if you want to get to know your subject. We formed a real bond with them. Mary Ellen noticed that they sucked their thumbs under stress but were self-conscious about it. After a week, she had developed a rapport with them, and they slowly became more comfortable with us. So when they all happened to be standing there together, their thumbs in their mouths, Mary Ellen was ready-she just went for the shot! It would have been exploitive if she had set it up, but she most definitely did not. Mary Ellen has a strong sense of integrity."
The two women spent hours driving from town to town. "It was emotionally and physically exhausting," says Kohn; "Mary Ellen was so revved up! When we weren't driving or working, we were buying food for hungry families, and we hardly ate ourselves. In one town, a writer wanted to take us to lunch and Mary Ellen was outraged-she had a lot of adrenaline going and didn't want to waste it on lunch.”
"It was very hard for us to leave,” Kohn says, explaining that "we kept asking, 'What is going to happen to these people?' Because we could see the cycle of poverty." The women were pleased that when the story appeared in a December issue of Fortune, money and Christmas gifts came pouring in for the families.
The year before, Mark shot "Children of Poverty” for Life magazine with writer Peter Meyer. "Mary Ellen can be hell to work with," related Meyer, "because she is so obsessed with the story. We worked from dawn to way past dusk for two weeks in Portsmouth, Ohio. Mary Ellen knows what a good picture is, and she goes after it like a tiger going after its prey. She has an amazing ability to know very quickly what makes people tick-and that rare talent to turn her vision into an image that becomes the photograph. All those people who lead lives of quiet desperation are given a dignity by Mary Ellen that society surely doesn't bestow."
'Mary Ellen Mark is really an intense person. Not only is she extremely intelligent, but she's one of the most intuitive people I've ever met.”-VICTORIA KOHN, Writer, Fortune Magazine.
Ram Prakash Singh with his elephant, Shyama, Great Golden Circus, India, 1990
Veeru and Usman with Moti the Performing Vulture, Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India, 1989
Contortionist with her puppy Sweety, Great Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta, India, 1989
The photo essay won the 1989 World Hunger Media Award for Best Photojournalism, while the text was entered into the Congressional Record. Meyer, who is now news editor of Life, says he would like to see Mark get more work along the lines of "Children of Poverty." So would Fortune photo editor Michelle McNally. "Unfortunately," says McNally, "it's harder and harder for magazines to assign long documentary projects. In these straitened financial times, not only are they expensive to fund, they don't sell magazines. What sells are pictures of celebrities. Even dead celebrities."
Observes Mark: "It's very frustrating to be in the prime of my life and have to search for meaningful work. I don't mind doing commercial work if I can make strong images. It would be incredible to do something for a corporation, even for American Express or I.B.M., as long as it was something that mattered, something that had real content. I don't care what it's about so long as it's about something! After all, your work is who you are."
Despite her exalted reputation, her numerous award-winning photo essays and internationally acclaimed books and exhibitions, Mark still sees herself as a student. And as she often tells her own photography pupils, "You're only as good as your next shot."
Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Rocky Kenworthy
SOHO, 1991. Mary Ellen Mark, her hair twisted into a single braid down her back, is conducting a day-long master class, under the auspices of the International Center of Photography. Students of all ages are gathered at a loft a few blocks from Mark's own in this arty neighborhood of downtown Manhattan. Over the course of the weekend, Mark will critique the work of 15 women and three men with the same straightforward approach that is the imprint of her work. "I'm a blunt and honest critic because that is what's going to help you," she tells them. "What I'm looking for,” she makes clear, "is emotion. You're not just a recorder of facts, you have to say something."
Mark frowns with concentration as she sifts through photographs spread out on a table. If her criticism is at times tough, her voice is gentle and her manner encouraging. Her elegant and expressive hands, glittering with silver rings, underscore her words.
"Always know what you are shooting," she instructs the class. "Frame your pictures in the camera,” she goes on, "never crop them afterwards. Get in closer, don't use a long lens. Your photos have to be personal, to have a point of view. Watch the expression of your subject-I hate 'camera' faces."
She tells the students, most of whom are amateurs looking for inspiration, to study the work of the great masters like Cartier Bresson and Walker Evans. "Look at the portraits by Horst,” she urges, "because they have a sense of drama. Look at Avedon for expression-they're not hokey. Steichen has a sense of light-there's nothing more beautiful than natural light. Photographs have to have tension, to feel like they're touching the heart of the people you're photographing."
Ultimately, she tells the class, photographs should teach us a new way of looking at something-"for instance, with his own peculiar sense of humor, Elliott Erwitt teaches us how to look at dogs."
She patiently answers the same questions she is asked repeatedly. Does she set up shots? ("When I'm doing a portrait, I give some direction, like 'look up' or 'look down.' ") Does she feel she is being exploitive? ("When you're taking a picture, there's no doubt you're taking more than you're giving.") Why does she prefer black and white? ("I like the abstraction.") How much of her work is for magazines? ("About 70 or 80 percent. Magazine assignments are like grants that enable me to make enough money to do my own projects.") What kind of camera does she use? ('Leicas and Nikons for active content that requires 35mm film, and Hasselblads and Rolleis for portraits with a 2'/4-inch format.") How much film does she shoot? ("Lots. Film is cheap. It's like a sketchbook.")
She tells the class that the hardest job she ever did was a photo essay on child drug abusers in the Sudan, because she was violating taboos and it was hard to get access-the Government didn't want to publicize the problem. Mark tells her listeners: "You're never just a 'fly on the wall'-except maybe in a war. Just being there with your camera is manipulating the situation. Then the way you edit your photo shoot is a form of manipulation."
The question Mark is asked most frequently is how she is able to walk away from such misery, particularly the starving and dying children of Ethiopia and Calcutta she has photographed. "It's hard. It's hard," she acknowledges: "The older I get [she's 51], the more overwhelming it is. But it's my job. All photojournalists suffer the same guilt because they can walk away. You never become immune to human suffering-you take it with you. You bury it."
Discussing the subject in The Photo Essay, a book published by Smithsonian Institution Press in 1990, Mark stressed that covering the famine in Ethiopia in 1985 was important to her because she wanted the photographs to make a lasting visual impression: "It was more than a news event; it really symbolized something horrific that was happening to mankind in our century-and could happen again and again-and I felt people needed to see these images."
Mark always tries hard to manage her emotions, to keep them in check. "I don't want to lay anything more on the people I'm photographing," she explains: "If they see I'm overcome by their situation, it's even worse for them."
Although her admirers always mention Mark's courage, she dismisses the notion that what she does is dangerous. "It's not like being a war photographer. Now that's dangerous;” she says, adding that she never takes unnecessary chances, like going into an abandoned building without having someone wait outside.
"I guess shooting wild animals in India was dangerous,” she concedes, emphasizing that "you have to be very respectful. Once, a chimp bit me. And another time, Martin was jumped by a chimpanzee who was being very protective of her owner. It took five men to pull the chimp off. When Martin went to get a rabies shot, the owner was very offended."
Mark says she's happiest when working in India, which she considers her second home. "I must have lived there in an earlier life, because it's where I feel my true sell," she says, adding, “I don't love India because it's exotic, but because it's so rich and diverse-like the United States."
'The older I get, the more overwhelming it is. All photojournalists suffer the same guilt because they can walk away. You never become immune to human suffering. You bury it.' -MARY ELLEN MARK
In 1989, Mark received a grant from the International Museum of Photography and the professional photography division at Eastman Kodak that allowed her to spend six months in India taking pictures of Indian circuses. The result was an unusual body of work that became a stunning exhibit last fall at Castelli Graphics, the Manhattan gallery that has shown Mark's work throughout her career.
"For 20 years,” Mark reveals, “I had dreamed of filming Indian circuses, so it was a joyous experience-a relief from what I usually do. I've been typecast as a 'serious' photojournalist, which isn't a bad thing if you have to be typecast. But I really enjoy whimsy and humor, too."
Mark hired an Indian woman to help her with research and several American and Indian photography assistants, then left for two three-month journeys that took her to Madras and Calcutta, as well as to tiny, rural towns throughout the country. The entourage didn't travel light. Mark brought 13 cameras, 18 lenses, several strobe and flash units, assorted light meters, and nearly 1,000 roles of film-with which she captured a people and a way of life that crosses cultural boundaries.
“I love animals, especially dogs and monkeys, and the way people anthropomorphize them," says Mark. One of her favorite shots-of a young female contortionist and her puppy (see page 23)-illustrates the cover of the book that is a 25-year retrospective of her work. "I insisted that picture be on the cover,” says Mark, pointing out that "it has an ironic edge to it and a double meaning: they are the same person-that girl and her dog." Another singular portrait-an elephant with its trunk encircling the ringmaster (also on page 23)-was included in Life a new book full of unforgettable images, with commentary by John Loengard, former Life picture editor.
The companionship between man and animal is one of the themes that emerges again and again in Mark's work: a teen-ager and his dog, a girl and her monkey, a boy with his cat. Each photograph portrays a mutual sense of caring and a special bond. Perhaps because Mark seems to capture their human-ness, the animals often have an amazing resemblance to their owners.
“I love the Indian circus prints,” says Kathy Ryan, photo editor of The New York Times Magazine: "Mary Ellen melds animals and people, and the pictures are both funny and sad. I found them to be very powerful emotionally. They tug at your heart."
Ryan, who has worked with Mark for years, says that she chooses her for an assignment whenever she wants a psychological (rather than a physical) portrait. "That's why," says Ryan, "I asked Mary Ellen to shoot Woody Allen and Mia Farrow for a cover [last February] rather than a 'celebrity photographer.' I wanted an insightful eye, a fresh look. Mary Ellen reluctantly agreed but came back with an intriguing picture that shows what makes them tick. She is very definite about what kinds of assignments she prefers -adolescents, the poor, and people whose lives are in disarray.” Mark's persistence in pursuing the work that interests her is legendary within the trade. The adjectives her colleagues most often use to describe her are "obsessive" and "relentless."
In the retrospective printed by Bulfinch, Mark's friend Greg Heisler, who is also a photographer, speaks of her intensity: "More than anyone else I know in the business, [she] is literally obsessed with her work, obsessed with photography, obsessed with the pursuit of her vision."
"About three years ago," says Kathy Ryan, "Mary Ellen was determined to do a story on the National Senior Olympics in Missouri. At the time, our editor was Jimmy Greenfield, who wasn't into photo essays. I pitched it, and he said no.
"One day, I wanted to introduce Jimmy to Mary Ellen and he said okay, as long as she doesn't mention Senior Olympics. Mary Ellen promised me she wouldn't discuss it. But not long after we walked into his office, she brought it up. She was so forceful and unrelenting that she convinced him to let her do the story. It won an award from the Art Directors Club."
After she gets the assignment she wants, Mark confesses, she fears she won't come back with "the great picture." As Mark puts it: "I always feel I'll fail. Over the years, I've learned to control what I want. I have a greater sense of freedom now with a 35mm camera, and I'm looser with framing. But I always worry about getting true access.”
"I always call my editors and say, “I just can't do the story," says Mark, "and then-usually the next day-I get back on track. It's like opening-night angst. I've never backed out. It would kill me to back out. Somehow, I always make that turn. In a way, it's like working out at a gym when you think you just can't get over the hump. And then, suddenly, you just do."
Mark has, in fact, recently begun working out at a gym to keep in shape and as a form of relaxation. “I don't have any hobbies,” she says simply: "Martin and I never take vacations. We are total workaholics. Frequently, our work separates us for months at a time. So when we're in New York, we like to stay home and watch old black-and-white movies."
Home is a large and well-lit loft filled with exotic plants, native Indian artwork, and handmade toys that Mark has been collecting for 20 years. '”I have a weakness for clothes and toys. I suppose because I never had them as a child,” she confesses.
Mark has never wanted children of her own because she knew they would tie her down. And, as she says, “I didn't want to have them if I couldn't provide a great, nurturing home life. So I put all the energy of raising a child into my work." Not surprisingly, Mark has devoted much of her career to photographing children who have had bad breaks in life-the autistic, the blind, the poor, the cancer-ridden, and the drug-addicted.
As for her future, Mark says, ”I just want to keep photographing people on the fringe. Themes always get back to who you are. I want to take more pictures in Eastern Europe. I want to go to Lourdes. And I'm hoping to return to India this year and make a fiction film with Martin on the Indian circus. Our friend John Irving wrote a script."
Although she is remarkably verbal for a visual artist, Mark finds it hard to describe herself. "I try to be open and honest," she says, then corrects herself: “I aspire to be honest, I should say, because cameras can lie and hurt people. In some ways, I feel out of the mainstream of society. I feel a kinship for the underdog, and while I don't think of myself as a feminist, I always take the side of women because they usually are the underdogs. I feel for the people I shoot; they mean something to me. Of course, I'm not talking about the Nazis or right-wingers I've photographed, but the majority of my subjects mean something to me in a positive way.”
"At the end of my life," she adds, "I don't want my work to be empty or meaningless. I want to look back at what I've done and say, 'This hasn't been for nothing."'
Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, 'New York Times Magazine,' 1991