Mary Ellen Mark has documented the downtrodden for decades.
By Les Simpson
Mary Ellen Mark isn't a shoot-and‑run type of photographer. As one of the world's foremost documentarians, the 66‑year‑old utterly immerses herself in the lives of her subjects, at times devoting weeks on end to get the perfect shot. Her captivatingly intimate portraits—many of which can be found in Exposure, a retrospective book of her 40‑year career—include subjects such as the destitute Damm family, who were living out of a beat‑up car; sedated patients in a psychiatric ward; and Bombay prostitutes confined to cages (a rare color series).
Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, work out of their vast Soho loft, and it was there that the photographer, adorned in exotic jewelry and wearing her long black hair in braids, recently chatted about her life behind the lens.
You've declared that there's a crisis in photojournalism. How so? A lot of publications aren't interested in documenting reality like they used to, not like in the days when Life and other magazines would commission lengthy essays. Some magazines still do—People just did a really interesting essay on Chernobyl—but now the emphasis has shifted more to celebrities and fashion. I find it disappointing, because it doesn't give me as many chances to do the work that I love to do.
Is photography a tough business for a woman? I've actually felt advantaged by being a woman. The kind of documentary photography I do is where you go and live with a group of people. I'm not threatening. I can knock on somebody's door and be let in, while a man often can't do that.
Are you flattered when people compare your work to that of Diane Arbus? No. I don't want my work compared to anyone. I have a great admiration for her as a photographer, but we're very different. It's just because we're both women; if her name were Donald Arbus, I don't think people would be making that comparison.
What do you think of photographers who celebrate artificiality, like David LaChapelle? I admire him because he invented something. His photos are funny and alive and obviously surreal. What I find difficult sometimes is when that sort of process, Photoshop or whatever, is used in a situation that you're supposed to believe is real.
You photographed Mother Teresa—she had a reputation for being prickly. Was she? Let's put it this way: She wasn't an easy subject. She was very aware of the power of the media and she knew exactly how she wanted to be portrayed. And if you pushed too hard, she could get very annoyed. Once, Mother Teresa made me eat my lunch under the stairs so I would learn humility. I felt like a punished kid back in school—but I'm grateful for that experience. I would have sat under the stairs a million times in order to continue to photograph her.
Many of your subjects are poverty stricken. Do they ever ask you for money? It's very surprising, but they don't. You can be very poor but still have a great sense of pride. For the Damms, I bought food and essentials rather than hand over money, which is never spent wisely. I'd rather give something that is a gift.
"MOTHER TERESA MADE ME EAT MY LUNCH UNDER THE STAIRS WO I WOULD LEARN HUMILITY."
You photographed J.T. LeRoy for Vanity Fair. Were you shocked to learn that he was actually a she? I knew that she [Savannah Koop] was a girl right from the beginning. For one thing, she didn't have an Adam's apple, and she was really pretty in a female sense. She didn't seem like a poor white‑trash girl; she seemed like an educated woman‑I thought of it as performance art.
Is it easier to take photos of famous people or complete unknowns? It's very difficult to take pictures of famous people that go beyond the fact that they're famous. I've managed to do that with a few people like Fellini and [ventriloquist] Edgar Bergen. I like pictures of famous people that are very simple. But ultimately, the pictures that I'll be best remembered for are of common folks and marginal types. I always manage to find them, and that's who I like taking pictures of most of all.
The paperback edition of Exposure (Phaidon Press, $40) is out now.