December 1991

Streetwise-Tiny dressed for Halloween, Seattle, Washington, USA 1983

Mary Ellen Mark is a wonderful New York photographer who is currently showing her work at the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea and at the International Center of Photography Midtown, in New York City. Her most recent book. Mary Ellen Mark: Twenty‑Five Years, is a masterpiece, showing the downtrodden, the confined, the freaks of nature, and the effects of poverty on people's lives. Forty‑five‑year‑old Mark is married to film director Martin Bell, who directed Billy Joel- A Matter of Trust, about the singer's disastrous trip to Russia. Mary Ellen Mark grew up in Pennsylvania before moving to New York City. She was the head cheerleader in her high school before going to the Annenberg School, which seems odd seeing the direction her life and her photography have taken. However, today Mary Ellen Mark, who makes her mark showing specific individuals in various stages of life, is showing the platinum prints of circus performers photographed in India last year, at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, and these photographs are uplifting and extremely personal, at the same time.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Los Angeles, California, 1978

Venice: At your current exhibit at ICP Midtown in Manhattan, some of your photos actually make my skin crawl. Do you work for that effect on your viewer?

Mary Ellen Mark: No, I don't really work for any special effect. I guess I just photograph the things that are really interesting to me and the things I care about. A lot of the pictures I take are of people living on the fringes of society. I do portraits of the rich and famous too, but my real interest is on people who are marginal.

How did you get started as a photographer?

At the University of Pennsylvania I studied painting. I was a fine art major. I got a scholarship to the Annenberg School of Communications. It was then an art school. Now it is very theoretical and intellectual. Then it was great and I studied photography there.

You've covered the spectrum. You've traveled with Mother Theresa. You've photographed prostitutes in Bombay. Were you working as a photojournalist at time?

Always and still do as a magazine photographer.  The assignments for magazines took me to many parts of the world. India happens to be a country I really love so I've a lot of work in India. I did a book on the Missions of Charity, Mother Theresa’s missions in Calcutta, prostitutes in Bombay, the circuses in India, and I did a piece on street performers in India. It's a fabulous country and I love it.

What was Mother Theresa like?

That's a hard question to answer. I did those photographs ten years ago. From outside one doesn't get to know Mother Theresa. She is certainly a remarkable and a great figure of our time. It was extraordinary to watch that force and that energy. The amazing thing to see in Calcutta is the result of her work, which is extraordinary. There are many different missions that serve people all over the world and just being able to see that was a powerful experience.

Do you have a female role model, such as Mother Theresa?

There's no particular role model. There are many people whom I admire. Much of the work I do centers around women because I am a woman. So I photographed prostitutes and teenagers who are pregnant. The people I admire are both male and female. I don’t divide that. I admire them for what they do, not whether they are male or female.

You appear to have a balanced life. You have a home. You have a husband. You have a successful work situation. Does keeping it all going require a lot of work?

In the sense that I have a studio, and a loft in New York, and I'm happily married to a man who's a film director, which really works, because he travels a lot and we understand the need for work. We are very supportive of each other's work and that's important. He, Martin Bell, just directed a film in Seattle, with Jeff Bridges called American Heart and I was up there the whole time and I was the associate producer on it. It's a story we developed together with my cousin, Peter Silverman, who is a screenwriter. I made the photographs on the film, so it was great to be working along side him. We've done that whenever possible. Martin made a film called Streetwise based on a project I did on runaway kids in Seattle. During the making of that film I was there and helped produced that. With my Indian Circus photographs, Martin came to India last year with John Irving toward the end of my shooting. John wrote a screenplay using the Indian Circus as part of the story and as background, so hopefully next year, we will be able to help each other and support each other and I think that it is really important.

Violent Children-Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990

Mother Theresa/Untitled 39-Shanti Nagar Leprosy Colony, Mother Theresa’s Missions of Charity, Bengal, India, 1981

Your photographs of streetwise kids show children who are old before their time. Do you think that’s what's happening to American kids today? That they are deprived of learning from the mistakes of a group, because they become old so quickly?

Adolescence is such an extraordinary period in one's life. Everything is changing and you're becoming molded into the person you're going to be. Now everything is so stressful. I am glad I had the experience of being a teenager when I did, because now there are so many options and possibilities and so many temptations. When I grew up, drugs were something that was very, very far away. No one I knew even smoked marijuana, so times have changed. Kids have to be a lot stronger.

In my day it was the good girls and the bad girls...with nothing in the middle.

Yeah it's true.

When I grew up in the time of Abstract Expressionism, the abstract expressionist Painters looked down at photographers. They were considered second class citizens.

That's interesting. I never knew that, actually. I think photographers are still looked down as second class citizens. I think there's just a lot more photographers around now so you are  confronted with it and you have to accept it. There’s a place for every art form... painting, sculpture, and photography to have its place and to do what has to be done. I hate these classifications of what's art and what is not, in the photo world too, there is this feeling that if you do documentary work then its not art. I think great images whether they come out of a tradition of documentary work or landscape work must be strong, beautiful, and great!

Indian Circus 89-Hippopotamus and performer, Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India, 1989

You do a lot of magazine work… Vogue, Esquire, G.Q. How do you adjust fashion work and your own work?

The magazines that hire me find subjects that I can do with the kind of work I do. For example, I love working in black and white so magazines like Vogue will hire me to do black and white portraits. I'll get subjects where I can spend some time. I don’t like popping in and then leaving. So they work along with me and they're actually supportive. I owe a lot to the magazines I've worked for over the years. Rolling Stone, Fortune, and Conde Nast, and Life, and Texas Monthly...They all supported my work and allowed me to come up with a body of work that becomes my books. I like to think of my magazine work as grants and I really pursue it and I work very hard at it.

What about the fashion photographers today like Bruce Weber who idealize the lifestyle rather than the clothes like he did with Calvin Klein?

Whererever strong photography takes over it's better. Advertising is starting to use real images. Ad agencies are calling us all the time asking us to look in our files for real images. There is nothing that I would like more than an advertising campaign where someone would allow me to do my own images and I could go off to Egypt and come back with amazing images. Or what about twenty portraits around America that are really strong and powerful. I would love that. It's great in advertising because you have all the financial support behind you that will allow you the time and whatever you need to make your images strong. So I'm all for the image being strong, because I think if people look at a strong image they're going to look at clothes or whatever.

What's next for you?

What's next? Hopefully we will get the money and we will go off with John Irving to make the movie Sons of the Circus. I look forward to doing strong photographs for the next twenty‑five years.

Indian Circus Fall 89-Ram Prakash Singh with elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India 1990

So many artists are going into filmmaking: Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Arnold Glimcher, the owner of Pace Gallery, and David Salle.

I have no desire to make films. I want to work next to Martin who is a great filmmaker. But a lot of artists want to go into the film world because it has so many more level. It's glamorous. Basically it is such hard work though.

In the beginning of your career, you sold yourself to Milos Forman when he was directing One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest saying you would photograph for free if you could have access to everything he was doing.

He and Saul Zaentz allowed me to work on the film and in exchange for that I got watch a great director work, and I got access to Oregon State Hospital. So I got to photograph Ward 81, and to do my book. I think when you really want something you have to be willing to work, if need be, for no money. And in the end it came back one million times to me. It was the right thing to do.

If you were going to do a portrait of me, how would you do me?

First of all, I would ask to come to your home, because I like to work in an environment rather than a studio because I think there are clues to a person in the home. I would come to your house a few days before I was going to photograph so I could get a feeling of how I was going to light you. I then would ask you for enough time to photograph you properly. Then I would just hope for the best.