10 BEST Photographers

APRIL 1991
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK


Combining a degree in painting and art history with a master's in Photojournalism from the University of Pennsylvania, she ranks among that unique company of photographers who are photojournalists nonpareil. Her terrain is the world. She photographed Turkey on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1956-66. Pictures from a recent project on the circus of India for Life Magazine are presently forming the basis of a new movie by her filmmaker husband Martin Bell and writer John Irving. In 1983 she did a story on runaway children in Seattle, which similarly inspired the film Streetwise, also directed by Martin Bell.

"What interests you most about a prospective project?" we asked.

"I'm interested in things that have possibilities of a strong visual presentation. I want to make photographs which can cross cultural boundaries; that people can look at and understand without any kind of explanations or captions. I love India. I've worked in India for years, and one of the things I always wanted to photograph was the circus. It is something we can all-understand in every culture. It has all the elements I seek: poetry, strangeness, humor, irony, even sadness. I guess those are the things I've looked for over the years: people living on the edge of society-the mentally ill, for example. I've done a lot of projects with kids, too-teenagers-because that's a changing, sort of amazing time of life."

Her medium is mainly black-and white. "I use Tri-X film," she says. "I know it. I love what it does. I've been working with it for 25 years and hopefilly understand it by now. It's reliable. I like what it does with shadow detail. It's an old, old friend who's never let me down.

"I usually decide on my camera format beforehand. I use Hasselblads now, Leicas and Nikons... If I want to capture a very spontaneous, 'caught' feeling, I'll often shoot with 35, but if it's a portrait, I'd shoot with 2 1/4. I like them both, but they're very different."

She recently completed a project on world poverty for Fortune Magazine.

On establishing a rapport with her subjects, Mark observes, "The most important thing is to be very direct and honest. If people are clear about your intentions, and realize you're interested in them, they'll have confidence in you and what you're doing, and open up their lives to you. I would say, 'We're doing an article on world poverty and how tough it is to live in the economy now and be poor.' Sometimes they'd say, 'I don't want to be seen as poor,' but mostly they'd say, 'Yeah, I understand where you're coming from. Well, it is hard being poor.'

"People ask me, 'How can you photograph that, it's so depressing?' But the people aren't depressing. I have found there was often something about them that was heroic. Sometimes what I witnessed was devastatingly sad-like a family I photographed in which all the children sucked their thumbs. They were teenagers! The gesture was such a tragic symbol of deprivation. It went beyond not having nice clothes. It said something about them as people and what it meant to be so poor. Those are the images that move and haunt us."