A superb show that looks beneath the surface
May 29, 2000

Amanda and her cousin Amy, 1990

Good pictures get to the point. It's great pictures that don't. Sometimes they have no point to get to. They don't try to simplify matters but to complicate them, to add nuance upon nuance and keep all judgments suspended. In the Mary Ellen Mark show that opened this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there are dozens of good pictures. There are some great pictures too.

For Mark, the Philadelphia show, which runs through Aug. 6 and then moves to Fort Wayne, Ind., New York City and San Francisco, is a homecoming. In the early 1960s she studied painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, then discovered that studio work was too solitary. The camera got her out of the house and onto the street, which it turns out is where she belongs. At age 60, Mark is now one of the pre‑eminent American photographers. In the 26 years since the appearance of her first book of photographs, Passport, she has found a way to look at people who are in foolish situations and come out with pictures that are more complicated than satire. In the same way, she can work among people in painful circumstances and make tender but dry‑eyed summations of their predicaments. The characters in her pictures can be simultaneously comical and admirable, sinister and hapless, strange and familiar. You never know entirely what to make of them. She wouldn't want you to.

Mark came of age at a moment when a lot of young photographers were looking at the unsentimental pictures of Robert Frank, William Klein and Diane Arbus and wondering whether their saturnine styles could be fitted to the warmer aims of documentary photography. Arbus, especially, didn't seem to take much interest in the people in her pictures for themselves. What she cared about was how they could function as emblems of the various beasts within us. Mark is not such a remote operator. She plainly does care about the struggling families and strenuously upbeat old people she has photographed. But if she learned a lot from the work of compassionate photo essayists like W. Eugene Smith, she has never lost touch with the part of herself that responded to the cool eye Arbus cast on the spectacle each of us sometimes makes of ourselves.

All of which has something to do with the odd power of a picture like Amanda and Her Cousin Amy. Mark knows something about the way children learn the poses of adulthood, the ones that will do them only so much good as adults. The barely postpubescent girl who flourishes her cigarette at us in a swimming pool looks as if she has already learned the ropes. Whether those are the ropes worth learning is an open question. It may even be the question in the anxious eyes of that little girl wading behind her, the one who could well be a stand‑in for all the misgivings we've ever had about the ways of the world.

Crissy, Dean and Linda Damm, 1994

Jerry Hill and Margaret Sell, 1993

Crying Twins, 1988

Like Arbus, Mark also enjoys the ways in which people construct fantasies of themselves, like the old girl in a ballroom gown who has been happily swept off her feet by a dance partner in Jerry Hill and Margaret Sell. In another shot, Vera Antinoro, Rhoda Camporato and Murray Goldman, two aging glamour girls strut their stuff, what there is of it. They may seem at first to be clueless about themselves, until you realize that they are onto something about all of us, something that has to do with the need to persevere in roles that give us pleasure, at whatever cost to our dignity. The flesh may be weak here‑-to say nothing of creased, puckered and pooched‑-but the spirit is all too willing.

Because it includes only work Mark has done in the U.S., the Philadelphia show, which was organized by Michael E. Hoffman and Melissa Harris of the Aperture Foundation, leaves out the prostitutes and circus performers that she has photographed in India and her bloodcurdling pictures of junkies shooting up in London. But two long sections are given over to a couple of Mark's best‑known projects. One is a series of portraits of the Damms, a California family she first came upon in 1987 when they were homeless and living mostly out of their car. Seven years later, she photographed them again, when they were squatters on an abandoned ranch. In some of the pictures the parents, both heavy drug users, look like pure arsenic –dark-eyed, doped up and listless, though capable of loving gestures, all of which only makes more affecting how much their children seem to need them anyway.

In one devastating picture, Crissy, Dean and Linda Damm, daughter Crissy looks up at us from the bed she shares with her father and mother. On the shabby dresser beside her there's a hash pipe, a Pepsi bottle and a plastic statuette of the Virgin Mary. Her sleeping father's arm is wrapped around her, but his affections are probably a mixed blessing. At the center of the picture is the face of a girl literally hemmed in by a world she seems appalled to have realized is hers. She gazes upward from the debris with an expression somewhere between foreboding and resignation.

Sixteen years ago, Mark's pictures of teenage runaways in Seattle, which she had shot for a 1983 photo essay for LIFE magazine, became the basis for Streetwise, the Oscar‑nominated documentary that she produced and that her husband Martin Bell directed. Mark has kept in touch with Erin ("Tiny") Blackwell, who was featured in that film, taking pictures at various moments of Tiny's precarious life. Ten of them make a rake's progress along one wall in Philadelphia. Tiny appears first as a pretty, enclosed 12‑year‑old, then as a pregnant teenager, then as a haggard‑looking 30‑year‑old with a shopworn and sometimes angry mother.

In an afterword to the show's catalog, Mark tells us that Tiny is now a single mother with five children by five different fathers. But in the book's final shot we see her from above, half submerged under the bubbles in the carton of her bathtub, a pillowy woman with a tentative expression, not satisfied certainly, but not devastated. She seems to say, "Well, it's come to this so far." The lines of the picture converge just above her head, where your eye takes in a small cake of soap. It's the quiet emblem of all hopes for a clean start. None of these stories, it seems to say, is over till it's over.