All photographs by Mary Ellen Mark are Ó Mary Ellen Mark/Library.
Tiny in Halloween Costume, 1983
The social and psychological upheavals of the sixties have had a profound and lasting effect on our interpretation of the human condition, particularly in the more representative art of photography. Whereas documentarians and photojournalists in the thirties had a more detached view of the social fabric sanctioned by the government and by popular acceptance, in the sixties their vision turned subjective and singularly visceral.
In 1964, Gary Winogrand hinted at the different focus with two memorable images. In American Legion Convention, Dallas, Texas, 1964, a veteran rests on the stub of his waist, the rest of him having been blown away in an act of war. He dominates the lonely center of the image, surrounded by fellow veterans in American Legion caps who are studiously avoiding his presence. In a later image, Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1969, three young women with teased hair walk toward the camera edging away from a man slumped forward in a wheelchair. They are further separated from him by an unprintable shaft of fierce light on the sidewalk. Lee Friedlander was also constructing his own view of a disconnected society using a blinding flash and juxtaposing the real with the unreal. Concurrently, Diane Arbus was honing in on these social outcasts with an unrelenting square format that left out all else. She summed up her personal focus in a series of class lectures in 1971: "I'm very little drawn to photographing people that are known or even subjects that are known... the minute they go public, I become terribly blank about them. There is a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life."
It was during the sixties that the word "freak" became a part of the popular lingo.
There were speed freaks, bike freaks, religious freaks - anyone who become disconnected through any obsession was a freak. The Hippie culture had begun to discover through the use of drugs, particularly LSD, the inner demons and ecstasies that reside in us all. The demons manifested themselves as terrifying "freakouts." At the same time, devastating images from the Vietnam War - a protesting student shot at Kent State, terrified children running from napalm bombings, Eddie Adams' extraordinary photograph of a man being executed point blank - exposed the freakish nature of violence as an act of enforcing political stability.
The public conscience was undergoing a grudging metamorphosis. The symbolism of the outcast became more encompassing. It began to mitigate our fears of the unusual. Our icons of the insane began to be transmuted to any violent aberration, not just to an unexplainable act of God that banished some poor soul forever to the edges of our insularity. Consequently, the shocking image of an innocent napalmed child focused our revulsion onto the mindset of those who had precipitated the terrible act of dropping firebombs. It needed no caption.
This metamorphosis continues, more humanized and with notable gentleness of the spirit, in a handsome new book, Mary Ellen Mark -25 Years. Mary Ellen Mark began to photograph during this period of social change. Some images from her book are from the sixties, but the body of the work is from the seventies and eighties. It is a rich compendium of Mark's years of involvement with subject matter she has termed the "unknowns". Her major projects include heroin addicts in London, the inmates of a women's insane asylum, the prostitutes of Bombay, the diseased and dying in Mother Teresa's hospices in India, and the traditionally curious performers in circuses.
The word "projects" delineates Mark from most photographers whose vision has been focused on the aberrations of society. Few photographers come to mind who have immersed themselves into their subject matter so totally and at such personal risk. Mark checked herself into Ward 81, a maximum security institution for the mentally insane in Oregon, for 36 days to interview and photograph victims of mental illness. She traveled to India twice on three-month stints to photograph the circuses of India, a traditional haven for the misfits of society. Once she gained Mother Teresa's confidence, she was free to photograph in her hospices, face to face with different degrees of abject human suffering - leprosy, blindness, and terminal illness. It is from that series of photographs that the remarkable image of a woman near death smiles so sweetly, yet so terribly, into Mark's lens.
The profundity of Mark's success lies not so much in the daunting complexity and enormity of her projects, but in how she gains the innate trust of those most often shunned by society and conveys both their humanity and their dignity. It is partially explained by the time she spends among them and the lack of illusions about her own self in their presence. It also has something to do with the fact that Mark's approach to them does not stem from the casuistical but that it is an extension of her genuine curiosity and concern. Her images reflect that she is constantly aware of the gentleness of light and the luminosity of the spirit.
It was refreshing to talk with a photographer who was spontaneous and unhedging with her ideas and opinions, and her hopes and fears.
INTERVIEW WITH MARY ELLEN MARK by Steve Harper
SH: Historically, interest in images depicting the human situation comes to the fore during periods of economic and political distress. Invariably they are taken by photographers whose avowed aim was to kindle a positive social change. Your images, though also monitoring the vicissitudes in the lives of people caught on the fringes of society, do not seem overtly political or crusading in their effect, but more the result of a very personal and probing curiosity. Is it your underlying aim to cause social change in the circumstances of the people you photograph?
MEM: I think change is something that is cumulative and I don't think it necessarily happens from one image - except maybe in a situation of war. During the Vietnam War there were certain images that I think truly affected people, like the image of the little girl on fire running down the road or the Eddie Adams' shot of the man being executed. These made people more cognizant of the war and more angry about what was going on. As far as the situation with society - photographing the poor, photographing people who were born in the wrong bed - those are constant situations that have always existed, and I don't think that one photographic essay or image is going to bring about change because change is cumulative. But certainly I photograph the people I photograph because I care about them and because their lives fascinate me. In a sense you might say that they are my heroes, because I think they have such a sense of passion and feeling in their lives. They have heart and soul and that is what I want to capture in my pictures. They touch me. If I had to stop photographing people I care about, I wouldn't even want to photograph again.
SH: What artists have had an inspirational affect on you?
MEM: That's such a hard question because there have been so many great photographers. The first photographer I ever became aware of was Cartier-Bresson. He is a great photographer; I collect photographs and I have some of his images and they are wonderful to live with. They are very powerful. I love the images of Kertész and the photographs of Robert Frank. They were the photographers whose work I first looked at when I started photographing. Certainly people like Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Eugene Smith were among the photographers that have inspired me. They took powerful images. Some of their images have become icons. Those are the kind of photographs I aspire to make. They are very difficult images to make because you only have a certain amount of them in you that you can make in a lifetime. To me that is what great photography is about.
Leprosy Patient with Her Nurse, Louisiana, 1990
Lewis in Shelter for the Homeless, Miami, Florida, 1986
Laurie in Ward 81, Salem, Oregon, 1978
Woman in Shower, Il Cottolengo Hospital, Turin, Italy, 1990
Mary Frances in Ward 81 Salem, Oregon, 1976
SH: I noticed you did not include Diane Arbus, which brings up a statement by Marianne Fulton in your new book, Mary Ellen Mark-25 Years. She feels that your photographs are sometimes erroneously compared to those of Arbus. Whereas Arbus sought an icon of the aberrant and seemed to be driven to the next, you have immersed yourself in the middle of these "unknowns." Since both of you have focused so intently on atypical subjects, it is difficult to brush aside comparison based simply on the approach each of you used. Do you not feel that the underlying reason the viewer might make a comparison with Arbus is because they marvel that each of you managed to initiate reciprocal trust with these people whom most people shun?
MEM: To me that's where the comparison should stop. I love her photographs. I think she was a great photographer, but I hate being compared to her. I want to be inspired by great photographers, but I don't want to be influenced by them. I must say, that as much as I love her photographs, I do not try to make my photographs look like them. I don't think my photographs look anything like hers. The only similarity is perhaps that both of us were fascinated by people who are marginal. I think her photographs are graphically very different; they are more direct, but that she is a distant observer. My photographs are more emotional and perhaps less graphically direct. But I repeat, I think she was a great photographer. When people compare us, they do it because we're both women. There have been many photographers who are drawn to people who are considered marginal in society. Eugene Richards photographed marginal people and yet he's never compared to Diane Arbus. It's interesting.
SH: I think the telling point is that you immerse yourself in the middle of these people and, as you said, she is an observer.
MEM: I just think it is a different type of imagery. Technically it's very different. If using a square format equates similarity, then why not say Avedon takes pictures like Arbus. In his American West project, even though he was using a large format, his images were very direct and I don't think they are anything like hers. They are like Avedon's and that is what makes them strong, because he has his own unique vision. It has to do more with being female. You are always going to be compared to a woman if you are a woman. It's very sexist. They don't do that to men.
SH: Speaking of men, it has been my own personal observation, that most male photojournalists and documentarians seem to have adopted a uniform of well-worn jeans and humble jacket. I assume it is to integrate themselves more with the situations of their subjects - and also, through the veil of illusion, to downplay the value of all that equipment! Being an attractive woman, bound to be noticed for that alone, do you consciously consider your own persona in the matter of dress and appearance when approaching a new project?
MEM: I feel like I am getting very old. When I was a young woman, I was attractive. Now I feel like I'm getting up there in age. It's hard.
Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1981
Mother Teresa, Calcutta, India, 1980
RXAdventure, Benares, India, 1989
Leprosy Colony, Mother Teresa's Mission of Charity, Bengal, India, 1981
Shepherd's Village, Jodhpur, India, 1989
SH: Age doesn't seem to diminish attraction. Certainly it did not with Georgia O'Keefe, nor has it with you. I'm sure it is a frivolous question, but I was serious when I asked you how you dressed on assignments.
MEM: Well, I wouldn't wear what I'm wearing now although I like to get dressed. I love clothes. It's a weakness in me.
SH: And you love jewelry.
MEM: Yes, I love jewelry! Silver jewelry. But when I'm photographing out in the field, I wear a pair of jeans and a shirt or t-shirt and comfortable sneakers. I just try to work in a way that I am comfortable. I can't be outrageously dressed, or noticeable, because it just doesn't work. I don't want to stand out, particularly if I'm in a foreign culture. I would never wear tight pants, and would try not to be provocative. I just try to blend in and be comfortable. But then I wouldn't deliberately try to dress down and try to look poor because that's hypocritical.
SH: Was there a particular turning point in your own life that influenced your choice of such dramatic themes?
MEM: I think we go through all periods. Right now I think I'm at a turning point because I'm amazingly frustrated. I feel like I am at my prime -that I could make better images now than ever. And I'm seeking an outlet, a way to do it. My work was always financed by magazines. I kind of used them as my grants. I owe 90% of the work in my retrospective book to the magazines that allowed me to do that work. Now there's this incredible trend towards something that's so different than what I want to do. So, it has become difficult. I have to rethink my way of working because I am still driven to go out and shoot. I feel at this moment I am at a big turning point. I have gone through a series of turning points. I certainly did after the book on Ward 81, because then I realized I wanted to work in a way where I stayed with a group of people and just sort of went over and over one theme. I think I went through another turning point in the early 80s when I started to work with a 2 1/4 camera. It re-educated me visually. I work with a Hasselblad and yet, it made me a better 35mm photographer. It made me much looser. Learning a new format is like learning photography all over again. Ultimately, these turning points are all painful. This is probably the most painful one now because I have to really, really rethink everything about how I'm going to continue to work. I definitely want to continue to work. It's what I do. I feel so ready to, and am yet so frustrated in trying to figure out how I am going to continue to do it.
Lillie, Seattle, Washington, 1983
Rat and Mike with a Gun Seattle, Washington, 1983
Homeless in America, Hollywood, California, 1987
SH: A few years ago a Maine Photographic Workshop catalogue listed you as teaching a workshop in Environmental Portraiture. If I recall the encapsulation of the workshop, each student was to document the day to day happenings in the lives of a local family. It has been my experience in teaching Environmental Portraiture for a number of years that some students are terrified that they have to go out and photograph someone they do not know.
MEM: That's the biggest hurdle. How do you approach people? I just think you love photographing or you don't, and if it is continually painful, it's probably not the right thing for that person to be doing. Although, every time I start a new project or am assigned to photograph someone, I'm always terrified, thinking I'm going to fail. It's like jumping into cold water. But approaching people is something I love to do. It is truly exciting. I was recently assigned by Vogue to do a portrait of Gay Talese and it was really interesting, particularly with a subject like Talese, who is a great looking man, distinctive looking, and a willing subject. He was cooperative, but it is still challenging to go into someone's home and figure out how you're going to light him, where you're going to place him, and what you want to say about him. I prefer that to trying to preconceive how I'm going to shoot someone. It's always great if I can go the day before and have a look at the location because it allows me to think about lighting. I much prefer that to working in a studio. I feel kind of flat working in a studio. I like to have a sense of a person's belongings, and also a sense of depth.
SH: I gather that it is your approach as a teacher that the time spent and immersion in a project are the primary criteria in photographing people?
SH: Being an educator myself, I have experienced the dawning of the very meaningful realization in each student that after four years of intense study, the real world is yet outside. The questions take on a quite different urgency. What would you advise students to do at that point?
MEM: It's very difficult now. I recently saw the portfolio of a young photographer who was an assistant. His portfolio was excellent. He had a good eye. When he left I was in tears. I thought it was tragic. The guy was great, but who is he going to work for? I would have to tell students not to be discouraged, to continue to do their work, and if they do something great, they will probably find a place to publish it. The possibility of going out and doing the great documentary assignment is pretty scary right now because even a lot of accomplished photographers who have worked for years aren't getting assignments. So what do you tell some young kid with all of this sparkle and energy and talent? I don't know. It's a difficult time for this kind of work.
Heroin Addict behind a Door, London, England, 1969
Man Shooting-up Woman, London, England, 1969
Arrested Drug Suspect, South Dallas, Texas, 1988
Glue Addicts, Khartoum, Sudan, 1988
SH: The only honest answer I could ever really come up with was that they must continue to take photographs that fulfill them personally, and if they do that with intent, then all is not lost and perhaps everything is gained, even in unforeseen ways. Something will happen at one time or another, and in the meantime, should they die, their photographs will be worth a fortune! [laughter.]
MEM: You're right. About the only thing you can tell someone is to hope for the best that it will change. But I tell you it's scary. It's scary to me. I'm ready to photograph. I really feel more ready than ever to go out and make the best images I've ever made, and yet I've never seen it quite so bad.
SH: We're in the middle of a very serious recession, if not a depression, and we have been for quite some time.
MEM: I think it's beyond a recession.
SH: Do you enjoy teaching, and do you have time for it anymore?
MEM: I do some workshops. I particularly like doing the workshops when I have some friends who are teaching there. And it's nice to be able to meet people who you have not seen before. If my students do good work, it is inspirational. Teaching is hard work though, and I'd rather be out taking pictures.
SH: What is your next project?
MEM: There are so many things I'd like to do. I almost feel like it's bad luck to talk about them. I would like to go back to India to work. I'd like to make a book of the circuses. I would also like to do a lot more photographing around this country. I just need to find the right outlet for my work. I am trying to find new avenues for the sort of work I do.
SH: Are you interested in going to Russia?
MEM: I was in Russia about three years ago. I would love to go back.
SH: You have begun to use a computer as a database to record all of your images for your own picture agency, the Mary Ellen Mark Library.
MEM: Not all of them are on file, but many are. It's something I should have done myself, but my husband, Martin Bell, did it. He loves computers and he has totally organized my work. It took about five years to do it. The images and projects that I have worked on are all numbered.
SH: Do you expect to keep it solely as a database or have you considered using the computer as a creative photographic tool?
MEM: For the type of work I do, I can't see myself altering images with it, but where I can see it relating to documentary work is in self-publishing, which is an interesting idea. Martin and I have contemplated doing a film on it which would combine film and still pictures and music. An excellent photographer named Gregory Heisler did a series of black and white portraits in which he altered the images and they are very beautiful. What he did relates to his work and it is very provocative.
Grand Wizard at Aryan Nations Congress Hayden Lake, Idaho, 1986
Tattooed Man at Aryan Nations Congress Hayden Lake, Idaho, 1986
Jesse with His Dog, Homeless Family Los Angeles, California, 1987
SH: In your new book, it lists the equipment you used to document the Indian circuses as four Nikon FM2's with seven lenses; four Leicas with five lenses; four Hasselblads with six lenses, a Polaroid SX7O and six light meters, and assorted flashes.
MEM: I always bring backups. I'm very paranoid about cameras breaking, and particularly in places like India where it is not easy to have them repaired, although there is a Hasselblad repair place in Bombay. But I always bring backups simply to be sure that if one goes down that all is not lost. When I did the book on Falkland Road, I brought much less equipment, although I always have two spare working cameras in my hotel room - at least two.
SH: On the Indian trip you also took a thousand rolls of Tri-X film. That would have come to roughly 37,000 images!
MEM: I didn't shoot all the film, but what if I had wanted to? It is really important to have your options open. I shot a lot of film. I don't know exactly how much, but I certainly didn't shoot that amount of film.
SH: The reason I brought up the logistics was that even if you approached such a number of images, how long does it take you to edit such a major project? And what is the process in making the ultimate selections?
MEM: It took me a long time to edit the pictures from India. I have learned to edit work more efficiently. It has taken me some years to learn to be a good editor. It’s a very important part of your work. I go through various contact sheets at a time and slowly cut it down. Then I ask my husband or Teri who works for me in New York, to also look through the contact sheets and to pick the ones they like. It always helps to have an outside opinion. You are so close and so personally involved with your work, it's hard to separate yourself from it and see it objectively. After they have chosen the ones they like, I match them up. Martin is a great editor. He just goes right through them. Teri is also an excellent editor. Editing 2 1/4 is my favorite because it is so much easier than 35mm. Another thing I have found helpful recently is that I have a copier that enlarges. When I think I really have it down, I enlarge the images on the machine. When an image is bigger you can really see how it holds. I don't shoot color much anymore, but it's much easier to edit because you can project it on the wall and meaningful images really stand out.
SH: You touched on it a while ago, but I want to ask what feelings do you have when one of your major projects comes to an end?
MEM: That's part of what I am experiencing now. It’s a sort of letdown feeling after I have finished something. I firmly believe that I'm only as good as the next thing I do. I'm not interested in going back, but going forward. I miss the excitement-that amazing excitement- which is why I do this work. I miss that feeling that happens when you're working on something you care about... there's just nothing else like it.
SH: You no longer do your own prints, instead having them done by experts. Do you think that will have an effect on their ultimate value to collectors?
MEM: Well I think that can only have an effect if you don't do great prints. That is partially why I work with excellent printers, both for the platinum and the silver. I didn't just go out and pick a printer. I looked at the work of a lot of people who are excellent because that is what they do. I could never approach their talent in printing technically because they do it all of the time and have a real feeling for it. It's great if you like to do it, but I've never enjoyed printing, ever. I hated the darkroom. The hard thing in finding a printer is to find one who is consistent. In the same way that you want your image to have a point of view, the prints must also have a point of view. There are very few printers who have that capability. I have great respect for people who can do good prints.
SH: Ingrid Sischy reviewed Sebastiao Salgado's exhibitions at the ICP galleries in the September 9, 1991 issue of New Yorker magazine. The review was lengthy and somewhat critical. She cited the recurring sign of the cross as being perhaps gratuitous, and the fact that a sense of beauty in many images interfered with the ostensible reason the photographs were taken. I have also heard the word "beauty" used disparagingly as an outdated Victorian concept. There is a continually building dialogue, particularly among critics, in their assessments of social documentary images as to just who is benefiting from the work - suggesting that the approach is exploitive.
MEM: I hate the word "exploitive." I think all photography in that sense is exploitive. Someone is allowing an image of themselves to be taken and published. It's just as exploitive to photograph a celebrity. Is it that these people don't deserve to be photographed? Is it because they are poor and perhaps ugly that makes it exploitive? I don't feel that way. When people say to me, don't you feel it's exploitive photographing the people you do... well, it's such a difficult question. There are so many levels to it perhaps it is exploitive in the sense that people are giving you something amazing and you can never give it back. In that sense, perhaps you could say, how can I ever repay this, but on the other hand, if the word exploitive is used only because they are being photographed because they are poor or they are strange, it makes me furious. The people I photograph are beautiful, and they deserve to be seen. To me they are more beautiful than a celebrity leaping up in the air. Why shouldn't people be allowed to be photographed? Why should they not be given the dignity of having their picture taken? I did not read the article by Ingrid Sischy, and so it is not possible for me to comment on exactly what she wrote, but I would like to read it. It has probably gotten so much comment because she writes very well, and it can be looked at in another way. The fact that it has received so much attention has made people look at photography more seriously and so it is perhaps good that controversy exists. I don't understand why all of the documentary photographers are given a bad rap about the exploitation issue and none of the others. I don't think there is an escape. However, the people I admire who do documentary work are those that capture a unique truth through their images - and it is always a very personal truth. Those are the images that really move me. You don't see very many of them in magazines these days.
Black Middle Class USA
East Orange, New Jersey, 1988
Chess by the Beach, Sechi, USSR, 1987
Deaf and Blind Children
Watertown, Massachusetts, 1990
Deaf and Blind Children
Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1990
SH: Some photographers certainly let it be known that they have causes and are out there crusading to right the wrongs of society. To roughly paraphrase A.D. Coleman, what may seem ideologically correct, may not be politically effective. Perhaps that is the area where the idea of exploitation enters the dialogue. It occurred to me that your images may be exempt from such categorization because so many times what you have photographed is beyond political action. There is little to stir the conscience to action in images of insane women who are being taken care of as well as most of us are already, poignant and arresting though they may be. There is little one could do but react in astonishment to a photograph of someone apparently very near death, yet who is smiling sweetly at your camera, who may expire in the instant you click the shutter. Such images go beyond a casuistical opportunism. They arouse even deeper and more personal feelings, akin to the assessments we weigh in contemplating our own fate.
MEM: I did not go into Ward 81 to show some terrible injustice. I wanted to show what institutionalization was like. I wanted to show what it felt like to be mentally ill. I wanted the individual images to be strong and to show the confusion and the pain of women who were mentally ill. It was not to show that it was weird or exotic… it was more that there is someone who could be me.
Insanity and death and such are givens. I suppose I want to look at things as givens, to examine those things that are innate in all of us. The idea of prostitution in India wasn't because I wanted to show prostitutes in India. It was more that I wanted to know what it was like to be a woman and sell your body. There is no difference in selling your body in Bombay than it is to sell your body in New York or San Francisco. It's still the same thing and the same feelings are involved.
Children Picking Flowers at Special School for Blind Children No 5, Kiev, USSR, 1987
SH: Getting in the middle of these situations you photograph, do you ever experience actual fear?
MEM: A lot of times people ask me that. No, I don't feel fear. People who photograph riots and wars really experience danger. I pretty much work in a controlled situation where I know the people. And I'm cautious. I certainly don't want to be killed, and I don't even want to lose my camera. So I am careful. I build up a relationship with people whom I trust. When I was working in Bombay, there was a restaurant where I used to have dinner on Falkland Road, and I would leave all of my equipment with this one particular madam and walk on down the street. I never thought for a moment that anything would be missing. On the other hand, when I go into a neighborhood that's really a tough neighborhood, often I will make friends with someone in the neighborhood beforehand, and maybe even hire someone to work with me as an assistant.
The idea of going into an abandoned building has always frightened me. When I was working in Seattle with the street kids, one time I had to go into this old building looking for the kids who were supposed to be living in one of the rooms. It was a deserted building and we had to get a ladder to climb through a window. I arranged for some friends to sit outside in the car as I went in. I told them that every ten minutes I was going to come to that window and wave, and if I didn't come, time it, and if 15 or 20 minutes went by and they did not see me, to go call the police. When I have taught workshops, I have had students whose attitude is that part of the reason they're in this profession is that they want to be daring and brave, and I immediately try to tell them how foolish that is.
SM: How do you divorce yourself from the tragedy you are so intently focusing upon?
MEM: It has a big effect on my life. Certainly it has had a big effect on who I am. It makes me have a low tolerance for bullshit in general, and it makes me have a low tolerance for what is surface, because I feel that the people I have photographed are not surface. They are about something. So it has affected me. It has given me a lot of early age lines. If it does not touch you emotionally, you're not going to get your photograph. You have to feel about it and to care about them. On the other hand, you have to decide that you are there to take pictures, that you are not there to change someone's life, and you cannot take the burden of the world upon your shoulders and feel that you're someone who is going to change their lives and take them into your life's intentions, because in many ways you can do more harm than you can help. You have to really set up a clear relationship with your subjects and you have to understand the boundaries, and they do too. It's very interesting when I leave the situation - everyone exchanges phone number and you think you're going to hear from them night and day. Usually they don't call. If they do call - like the little girl Tiny who was in Street Wise, it’s because it’s a real plea. And then you are there for them. But you have to be careful how you react even when you're leaving. In many cases when a project is finished and I have to leave, I've felt like crying. Then I realize that if I become too emotional, it just puts a kind of burden on the people I'm leaving. You have to really understand that in many ways these people have given you a tremendous amount and there's no way you can ever repay them. There's a lot of guilt that goes along with that too. So there are so many levels and ways of thinking about it, but I couldn't have done it any other way. I still long to photograph those people. I really care about them, and I long to be in their situations... not only just the fringe situations, but just situations where I can go out with my camera and make photographs.
This past summer I did an assignment for Texas Monthly where I photographed small-town rodeos. Those people aren't poor people, but they were great people. They were real people. I guess what I am saying is, it is not a question of poor or rich or retarded or healthy or whatever, it's just that it's that reality I seek. That's why I'm most happy when I'm dealing with a situation of reality.
Gloria and Ravi the Animal Trainer with His Bear Gemini, Great Gemeni Circus Perintalmanna, India, 1989
Usman the Clown with William and Albert, Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India, 1989
Contortionist with Her Puppy Sweety Great Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta India, 1989
SH: There is nothing more frustrating than to enter a photographic situation in good faith and somehow a veil comes between…
MEM: That happens. Today the trend seems to be so much toward celebrity photography. I see it all over. When I first started to photograph, I always thought I would love to photograph celebrities. I could spend real time with them and take real pictures of them, but now all that has changed. It's all controlled by press agents who build and maintain stardom, and so it's a very different thing. You can’t come up with those amazing personal statements about a celebrity. It is very hard to communicate because you are surrounded by all those people. It's all about public relations. They select technically well-done images, but to get beyond that, to be able to show that someone is vulnerable, is very difficult.
SH: In doing the still photographs for movies, have you encountered any stars who have maintained who they are, so that there is an element of truth when you deal with them?
MEM: Recently? It's very rare. But my husband, Martin, made a film with Jeff Bridges recently. He's a great guy. Jeff is a man who does not seem to be corrupted or ruined by the business. I don't know how he has done it, because he has been in it for so long. But there is something in him that you can actually reach and touch. I also did something recently that I wanted to do on child actors that was really interesting because it will show you how difficult it is now to get the kinds of pictures you expect. I did it for Premiere magazine. I suggested the project because I thought it was really fascinating to be a child and to be an actor. You would have to be different. The children are subjected to the kind of competition that adults are subjected to. They are different. They are not like average kids. They are gifted children and all gifted children are different; they are inherently thrown into an adult world. I wanted the pictures to show that. I wanted them to be intense and strong images, and the portfolio didn't look like their normal pictures. I got all kinds of letters from people who were very upset. It's interesting to me that even when you attempt to do that, you are sort of pushed down by the outside. People are so conditioned to seeing a mass produced marketable product, that when they see something that is different, it's shocking to them. That doesn't stop me. It just makes me want to go on and work harder.
Veru and Usman with Moti the Performing Vulture
Great Jumbo Circus. Mangalore, India, 1989
Venkesh on Lucky Donkey
Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India, 1989
Rani, Star of the Dog Act
Great Bombay Circus, Limbdi, India, 1989
Hippopotamus and Performer,
Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India, 1990
This interview took place on February 7, 1992 during the exhibition of Mary Ellen Mark's Indian Circus series at the Robert Koch Gallery, January 23 through February 29, 1992. The book, Mary Ellen Mark-25 Years, published by Bullfinch Press, with an essay by Marianne Fulton, is available at the Koch Gallery and selected bookstores.
We wish to thank Mary Ellen Mark for making the photographs for this issue readily available and to Teri and Michelle at the Mary Ellen Mark/Library for their assistance.
All photographs by Mary Ellen Mark are at Mary Ellen Mark/Library.