October 3rd, 1991
By Louis Malle

Children picking flowers at special school for blind children no. 5, Kiev, Ukraine, U.S.S.R., 1987.

As a film director, I both envy and admire still photographers. I envy them because they go out there and do it; creation for them, even when very elaborate, does not carry the heavy burden of money and logistics that we filmmakers have to deal with. Each time I have seen Mary Ellen Mark at work, I have been stunned by the amount of improvising that is part of her great talent. She works on instinct and injects her own vibrant personality into the subjects she chooses to photograph. I also admire her and her peers because they are denied the fourth dimension of time to fulfill their thematic ambitions, which is our privilege in filmmaking.

Twin brothers Tulsi and Basant, Great Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989.

Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990.

Laurie in the Ward 81 tub, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976.

Acadian wedding, Lafayette, Louisiana, 1972.

Shavanaas Begum with her daughter Parveen, Great Gemini Circus, India, 1989.

Dancing school, East Orange, New Jersey, 1988.

Grand wizard at Aryan Nations Congress, Hayden Lake, Idaho, 1986.

Halloween boy, Texas, 1983.

Hippopotamus and performer, Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India, 1989.

The work of a photographer is suspended, a frozen chunk of time, a two-dimensional statement that in order to achieve its goals must project an emotional, social and historical context far beyond the limits of the frame.  I don't know if Mary Ellen has ever photographed a tree. Her work deals only with human beings. Because she is so intensely involved with her subjects, because she gets to know them intimately, because she loves them, she often reveals in one single shot their history, their emotions, their souls. When she photographed runaway boys and girls in the streets of Seattle, she spent so much time with them that her portraits project a disturbing intimacy, a powerful bond between the camera and the children. Strangely, some of the photographs seem like self-portraits.

It is Mary Ellen Mark’s triumph to combine successfully two different approaches to photography. Like Cartier-Bresson and the best photojournalists, she knows how to find the perfect angle, the exact fraction of a second that will tell the story in one shot. On the other hand, her choice of subjects, her taste for the singular, her visual imagination, make one think of Diane Arbus and other poet-photographers. But what makes Mary Ellen unique is her compassion. She never puts down the people she photographs. She is moved by them; she shares their sufferings, their difficulties, their contradictions. Even when she portrays a Klansman at an Aryan Nations Congress, she does not ridicule him or pass judgment. The setting, the composition, emphasize the pathetic isolation of people who are parochial remnants of the past, left behind by history on this country road, guerrillas of a war long over.

What amazed me is Mary Ellen’s tremendous energy, her commitment to her work. In recent years she has disappeared several times for months in order to follow small circuses through India. And she plans to go there again to photograph these people, who have become her friends. Never satisfied, she is on an endless quest for the universal beyond the particular. In my field they say you’re as good as your last film. I always answer that I am as good as my next film. I feel close to Mary Ellen because she only looks forward. Her work is always in progress.

Louis Malle is the director of “Au Revoir les Enfants,” “Atlantic City,” and “My Dinner with Andre.”

Photographs copyright ° 1991 by Mary Ellen Mark/Library

These photos are excerpted from Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Tears, published by Bulfinch Press. An exhibition by the same name can be seen at the International Center of Photography, in New York City, through November 17th, and will then travel to Rochester, New York; Norfolk, Va; San Diego; Seattle and Barcelona, Spain, among other cities. The exhibition was organized by the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, with the support of the Professional Photography Division of Eastman Kodak Company.