Mary Ellen Mark was part of that crucial third wave of documentary photographers who came of age during the 1960s and '70s –just before the blossoming of conceptualism and the later emergence of digital techniques that revolutionized photographic approach and practice.
Mark, 70, is coming to Portland courtesy of the Newspace Center for Photography, which is producing and presenting a workshop and lecture featuring Mark. The workshop is sold out, but limited seating remains for the Friday lecture at Mercy Corps.
Charismatic, slightly irascible and wise, Mark will talk about her past and current work, including a current project on proms at American high schools. (Mark's husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, has made a documentary on the subject as well.)
During her more than 40 years taking pictures, the Pennsylvania native has created a remarkable body of documentary and photojournalistic work known for its acute sensitivity toward people ‑ work that also reflects strong social and political values.
“Happy New Year couple, Miami Beach, Florida,” 1979.
“Craig Scarmardo and Cheyloh Mather at the Boerne Rodeo, Texas,” 1991.
(photograph not available)
Mary Ellen Mark, in a photo taken during a workshop in Mexico
Influenced by Robert Frank and Helen Levitt, among others, Mark's been particularly drawn to those living life on the far edges ‑ circus people, prostitutes in remote pockets of the world and the women inside the security ward of the Salem-based mental institution, Oregon State Hospital, for example.
Mark’s also done her share of portraiture and commercial work. For decades, shes’s worked as a unit photographer on films, including “American Heart,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Apocalypse Now” and, most recently, the upcoming Coen Brothers remake of “True Grit.”
Mark has some fascinating connections to Oregon beyond spending time here to take pictures. She’s a distant cousin of Melvin “Pete” Mark, the Portland philanthropist and longtime Portland Art Museum patron.
Mark took time out to talk to The Oregonian this week by phone from her New York studio. Questions and answers have been edited.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: What I’ve been up to these last couple of years is a project on proms. During prom season, I travel around the country with a 20-by-24 camera – which is logistically complicated – and photograph proms. My husband made a film of it. Martin interviewed hundreds of kids. We worked in conjunction with various museums and high schools and photographed them. I wanted to photograph a high school in Portland but couldn’t work it out and couldn’t find the sponsorship for it there. I asked the Portland Art Museum (a few years ago), but they weren’t interested. Hopefully, I’ll do a book on it, but it’s difficult with this economy.
Q: You seem to be attracted to those living on society’s fringes.
A: Well, you can say that. But my prom project is not about the social fringes. It’s about mainstream America. But, of course, I have done a lot of projects about the fringes. They’re all realistic pictures.
Q: Your subjects have been diverse. Ultimately, what are you drawn to?
A: I’m just interested in what makes a photograph. It doesn’t have to be someone on the fringes. Yesterday, I was teaching in Woodstock and there was a state fair, and I was just walking around and looking at people. I’m just interested in reality.
“Hippopotamus and Performer, Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India,” 1989
Q: You do a lot of documentary work or photojournalistic work. …
A: Well there’s no such thing as photojournalism anymore. That’s over, except in newspapers. I respect newspapers but the reality is that magazine “photojournalism” is finished. They want illustrations, Photoshopped pictures of movie stars.
Q: Why do you think photojournalism is a dead practice?
A: Economics. You still see documentary work, but it’s about war. War stories. I have great respect for war photographers. They’re incredibly brave. I would never have the guts to do that, and I’m too old and can’t run fast. It’s for young people who can think and act quickly. So, you still have stories about war but what you don’t see is more socially based documents, like the “Ward 81” project (Mark’s book on the women inside the Oregon mental ward).
Q: So do you feel the majority of photography these days is commercial work?
A: Well, there are great documentary photographers working today but we don’t get a chance to see their work. It’s a tragedy. Their work is not really shown in galleries because people don’t think they’ll sell.
Q: You work primarily in analog. Why?
A: When I look at magazines and see a portrait, I assume it’s been digitally altered. I’m not putting down Photoshop. When it’s used like that, it’s just not a photograph but an illusion.
Q: You have great empathy for your subjects, it seems, and you seem drawn to individuals, not landscapes.
A: Yes, that’s definitely true. I care about people and that’s why I became a photographer. I love great landscapes, but I wouldn’t know how to take them. I respect those who do, just like I respect war photographers.
Q: What are you looking for when you take a photo?
A: That’s a hard question. I’m looking for something that makes sense to me, something that I can share with others. I think photography is closest to writing, not painting. It’s closest to writing because you are using this machine to convey an idea. The image shouldn’t need a caption; it should already convey an idea.
Q: Where and how does beauty play into pictures, even so-called objective documentary work and photojournalism?
A: I love beautiful imagery. It’s important. But I also like images that question things, and images that are funny, ironic.
Jeff Bridges on the set of “American Heart,” on location in Seattle in 1991.
Q:People in newsrooms talk about objectivity. Does such a thing exist?
A:It doesn’t. Everyone’s subjective. When you look at something, you’re being selective. You try to be honest, but it’s still your feeling about something.
Q: Is every photograph therefore an act of manipulation?
A: Every photograph is the photographer’s opinion about something. It’s how they feel about something, what they think is horrible, tragic, funny.
Q: You’re still taking photos on film sets?
A: I am. I just did "True Grit." I really enjoyed that. I enjoy that work. It's sort of like taking photos in a museum of someone's artwork, It's different than your own work. You're interpreting the work of a director ‑ his actors, sets, costumes, etc. I do my best to interpret what they're doing. But I know it's really about their work.
Q: In this digital age, everyone is a photographer. What do you think about that?
A: It's good and bad. It's good that everyone has an opportunity to take pictures, the chance to be a photographer. Some are good, too. But the bad thing is that it's very, very difficult to take a great picture. Everyone can take a good picture ‑ even a child ‑ but it's hard to make a great one. That is what's being lost. The judgment of what is a great picture and a good one is being mingled.
Q: How do you get people to open up when you are taking pictures?
A: You have to be yourself; especially in a portrait. You have to take control, even if it's the person you are most scared of, a famous person or someone like that. Similarly, in a non-portrait situation where you want to speak to someone in order to take their picture, you can't be scared of them. I tell people who are scared or embarrassed by taking pictures that they just aren't documentary photographers. They should go photograph still lifes or landscapes is what I tell them— stay away from people. Because people sense it if you're scared of them. Most people want to be photographed, anyhow, and what's the worst thing that can happen? They can say no. I've had a few "no's" in my lifetime.
Mary Ellen Mark
What: Lecture by the photographer, presented by Newspace Center for Photography