Mary Ellen Mark revisits a time, a place and a publication that put her on the road to photography fame.
January 2006
By Jacqueline Tobin
Photo Editor: Jeanine Fijol

An image by Mary Ellen Mark, one of the previously unpublished images included in the new, revised edition of Falkland Road, her classic work on brothel life in Bombay.

“I’m a photographer. I'm a voyeur. I'm an observer. Some of the things I see are hard to look at, some are not… but I have to look at them. That's what I do. That's who I am."

So says documentary and portrait photographer Mary Ellen Mark, summarizing her 40‑year career. To Mark, "reality is always extraordinary," which is why she has turned her lens on the ordinary as well as the unusual and often unattractive side of society. Im­mersing herself in her subject matter completely, she captures the intimate, the disturbing and even the unexpected.

The 11 previously unpublished Falkland Road images, now in the Steidl edition include

Putla's reflection, Bombay, India, 1978.

Munni with a customer, Bombay, India, 1978.

Putla on her bed with a crushed flower, Bombay, India, 1978.

Take, for example, Mark's study of the world of prostitution on Bombay's notorious Falkland Road, the project that, when it was published in 1979 put her on the map as one of the most provocative photojournalists of the time. Mark visited Falkland Road for a period of ten years before she was able to fully earn the trust of the prostitutes and gain entry into the cloistered world of their brothels. For three months she lived side by side with her subjects in order to witness the rituals and realities of their world: waiting for business, applying makeup, having sex with customers, napping, bathing, crying.

"Falkland Road is about prostitution and women‑something that exists all over the world, not just in India‑but I was able to approach it at a time when it was operating at its purest state," Mark explains. "There was little evidence of drugs, pimps or even AIDS at that time. It was just about women… the prostitutes, the madams, and the children. The only men around were their customers." The resulting images ‑captured in brilliant jewel-tones‑ offered a rare look into a hidden and often taboo subject. The photographs, originally assigned by Geo magazine, were eventually published in Stern when the photos proved too racy for Geo to print. They were then collected in a book by Knopf in 1981. A new edition of Falkland Road, published last year by book publisher Gerhard Steidl, includes 11 previously unpublished images and a new afterword by the photographer herself.

MEM by Pablo Corral Vega.

"I took these images at a time when magazines were giving assignments like this," Mark says. "I've always loved India. The first time I went, someone took me to Falkland Road and I was just knocked out by what I saw. And I swore I would come back. That's the way I am with a lot of my projects: I think about them for a long time and try to get them made and done and eventually I do.”

The original Knopt edition of Falkland Road has been out of print since the mid‑Eighties but a few years ago she and Steidl agreed to give the legendary book a second life. The new edition debuted this past November in conjunction with an exhibition Of 76 Cibachrome prints at the Marianne Boesky Gallery and the Yancey Richardson Gallery, both in Manhattan, where Mark resides with her documentary filmmaker husband Martin Bell.

When I recently sat down with Mark to discuss Falkland Road I was struck by both her modesty‑"I'm not interesting; it's the people I photograph who are fascinating"‑as well as her exuberance for other famous photographers' work. On a tour of her studio, Mark gushed over one large wall covered with black‑and‑white images by some of her heroes: W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, Elliott Erwitt, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and Berenice Abbott, among many others. In striking contrast, on a much smaller wall across the room, hung a significantly lesser number of Mark's own work. Odd, considering how many subjects she has tackled photographically over the years: Indian circuses, Texas rodeos, Christian bikers, beauty pageants, rural poverty, Mother Theresa and the Mission of Charity in India, teenage runaways, the list goes on and on. (This past May, Phaidon came out with Exposure: The Iconic Photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, which includes work from many of her emblematic series.)

Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon, Rome, Italy, 1969.

Marion Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now, Philippines, 1976.

The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987.

Mark credits her early series, like Falkland Road and Ward 81‑where she lived in a women's locked psychiatric ward at Oregon State Hospital for 36 days‑with setting her on a path of pursuing single topics in depth. "That's what I've always been interested in: themes, of things that are universal, like twins or mental patients or circus people."

She notes, "When I lived in the ward for a month it was incredible. You sort of become who you are photographing. I got to know the women and their daily dramas and who was angry with whom and who to be careful of and all the politics that go on in that kind of atmosphere. That set me on the road to wanting to focus on particular communities and the relationships within those communities."

As far back as childhood, Mark says, she knew she wanted to travel and photograph other cultures, both foreign and domestic. After getting an M.A. at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, Mark was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to photograph in Turkey in 1965. She spent the next two years traveling there as well as through Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain and England. In 1967 she moved to New York and began shooting in Central Park and Times Square, looking for news around the city. She developed projects on the women's movement, pro­ and anti‑war demonstrations, as well as transvestite culture, burlesque comedians and marriage brokers on 42nd Street.

"I guess you could say this is when I started moving away from mainstream society and instead focused my lens on people who haven't had the best breaks in society," she says. "What I wanted to do more than anything was to acknowledge their existence."

Fast‑forward to a completely different genre of photography‑productions stills on Hollywood movie sets, which Mark continues to shoot to this day. "It's paid the bills and enabled me to continue my documentary projects," she says matter‑of‑factly. Mark has worked on the sets of Apocalypse Now, Carnal Knowledge, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, American Heart [directed by husband Martin], and countless others. In 1969, LOOK magazine sent her to Rome to shoot her idol, Federico Fellini, filming on the set of Satyricon, and she was hooked. "I really enjoy documenting the behind‑the‑scenes aspect of moviemaking. And while I was inspired by watching great directors work with great actors to see what they were trying to achieve, my work there remained simple and clear. I'm not about grand productions and smoke and computers. I love simplicity." Mark recently worked behind the scenes on the new Diane Arbus film, Fur, coming out sometime in 2006.

When asked who would play her in the movie version of her life, Mark, wanting again to take the focus off of her and put it back on her subjects, changed the topic. "I'm always wanting to find ways to take pictures…that's what I love to do and I can't imagine doing anything else. I'm so lucky to have found what I wanted to do forever when I was just 23 years old."