Mary Ellen Mark holds down a double slot in the world of photography. Widely known for stark, unblinking photojournalism, she also maintains a separate career as a production portraitist for the movie industry. A 1969 magazine feature on Federico Fellini filming Satyricon became her calling card in Hollywood. Afterward, she went on to shoot some of the most revealing photos ever taken of MarIon Brando, Jodie Foster, Johnny Depp, and many other stars. But Mark is still most regarded for her groundbreaking photo essays. Beginning with assignments for Life, Esquire, and Look magazines in the late 60s, her pictures show an unyielding eye for bathos and the jarring details of her subjects' lives. Her 1979 stay with the inmates of a maximum‑security women's mental hospital resulted in the heartrending Ward81, while in FalklandRoad she exposed the severe daily life of a Bombay brothel. Other subjects have included British working‑class junkies, Indian circus performers, the Aryan Nations, and a poor black family's Halloween celebration in the South Bronx. She's considered a master of the telling moment, and it's a talent that she uses throughout the entire spectrum of her work—the viewer invariably comes away with the feeling of having experienced her subjects in the flesh.
In 1983, after finishing an assignment for Life about teenage runaways in Seattle, Mark and her husband, Martin Bell, documented the subjects again, but this time on film. Streetwise remains a brutal slice of life that's reverberated with documentary filmmakers ever since. The current rerelease of the original photo book had us wondering about the whereabouts of Tiny, Rat, and Shadow.
Vice: It's the 25th anniversary of Streetwise. Are you still in contact with any of the central subjects?
Mary Ellen Mark: I'm still in contact with Tiny. A few years ago, Martin and I went back to Seattle and we updated her life. And I've been photographing her—I haven't been back there in three years—but I have been photographing her. I photographed her after she had her ninth baby but we couldn't make it out there for her tenth. [laughs]
Where does she live?
She lives in Seattle, in the suburbs near the airport.
How about any of the others, like Rat?
Well, Rat drives a pickup.
I'm a little startled that they're still alive. Yeah, he's been in and out of jail a few times. I think Mike is in jail. Shadow is a security guard. Let me see, Patti died of AIDS. I think Roberta was murdered by the Green River Killer. Lulu died years ago. She was stabbed.
One would think that Tiny wouldn't have lived through her adolescence.
She says sometimes that she really wants to put herself in a lab so they can figure out why she's made it this far. Another thing—she's married now. Her last five kids were by the same man.
And ten kids—wow. Was Streetwise an assignment or did you pitch it?
That was an assignment from Life. I was there for, like, three weeks to do the story.
How did you gain their trust? Did you live down in that area?
No, but we knew the kids. The writer for the piece—who is no longer alive, actually—got to know them. Both of us made friends, and one of the kids, Lulu, really liked us. I think she's the one, more than anyone else, who helped us get access.
I especially love the picture of Tiny on Halloween where she has the hat and the gloves on. It's a beautiful portrait. As a matter of fact, I knew that image for years before I even knew what it was. A friend of mine had it on her wall from a magazine or a book.
It's so strange why certain pictures endure. I don't know, I guess it's just something about her face and the hat—she was so beautiful. It's one of the easiest pictures I ever took because it's almost like a fashion picture but it's real.
What was interesting was that you were photographing these people who wanted to be glamorous, and here you are aiming a camera at her. Did that become kind of a weird blur?
When people are in front of your camera and you spend a long time with them, it's almost like you're making a movie. And then Martin went back and made an actual movie and at that time we knew all the kids because we were following the story so we knew the connections and the friendships and who hated who.
Rat and Mike
Were those scenes sort of reenactments of things you already knew about them? Was it scripted? That's always been a question about the film.
Nothing was scripted. People think it was because they were so open, but absolutely nothing was scripted. I was even accused of that when the story came out. It's just that somehow there was such a connection with these kids. And there still is when I walk into Tiny's house. She's able to open up for us, and the other kids were too. They were really into the drama of their lives. They were living a kind of a fairy tale—a twisted fairy tale, but a fairy tale—away from their families, often away from homes that were not so happy. We became witnesses to that, so they let their lives unfold in front of us.
Did Martin shoot a lot of extra footage for the film? Martin is economical in the way that he shoots. He's very sure of himself when he's shooting. He's a wonderful cinematographer. He always works on a tripod, so there's very little handheld. Although, some of stuff on the street had to be handheld, like when the boys meet him on the street. We weren't prepared so we had to run across to the parking lot. Martin is also very technical, so the sound was very good. He worked with the same wonderful sound technician that he's been with for years.
So you became friends with some of the subjects from Streetwise. What about a group that might be harder to relate to, like the Aryan Nations' followers? With the Aryan Nations, I got access for just a few days. They wouldn't let me inside—I had to stay outside. They made an announcement and the people who wanted to be photographed came out. I stayed a few days and then they started to get incredibly paranoid. They're very paranoid people. Then I left.
What are you feeling in a situation like that? Are you completely objective? No, I'm subjective with everybody. You have to be subjective no matter what you do. Even with a portrait you're subjective. It's your impression of somebody. You want to be fair but subjective. With the Aryan Nations, I just didn't talk much. I figured no matter what I said it was going to be looked at as negative. So I just kept my mouth shut. I didn't say, "Oh, you're so lucky to be part of the Aryan Nations." I can't be a hypocrite. Friends of mine know that I'm bluntly honest.
Have you ever concealed a camera?
No. I wouldn't be good at that. I like to be open with my camera. Most of the documentary work that I admire is from people who are open with their camera.
What else have you and Martin worked on together recently? Two years ago we went to Iceland. We were commissioned to do a project on disabled children for the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík. Martin made a 40 minute film that's absolutely beautiful. We made two trips there, photographing these children in two schools: one for profoundly disabled kids and one for profoundly to moderately disabled kids. They gave me full access and they had a big show in Reykjavík. It got great reviews, and I just assumed the show would travel, but no one in the US wants to look at it—neither pictures nor the film.
Why do you think that is? I don't think there's an interest in strong documentary work now. It's so centered on surface here.
I will say, though, that documentary film has made quite a reentry to the stage in the last five years—but mainly in the form of advocacy or propaganda. But this is advocacy in its own way. It's sort of a love story about these people and their little boy—it's beautiful. If you're ever in the neighborhood, come by and we'll show it to you. I wrote letters to so many museums and they all said, "Oh, this is wonderful work, but there's no place for it with us."
How about in Europe?
I think it's going to show in Scandinavia. They're much more open and interested in documentaries.
I've actually seen this work and I think it's extraordinary. I thought the project was really powerful and universal—it touches everybody. And when you have this kind of passion about something and you want people to see it and nobody in this country wants to look at it, it's very disheartening.
Well you know, it's the keepers of the gates that say that, because there are probably a lot of people in this country who would like to see it.
Everything is so commercial.
Speaking of commercial, I'm trying to understand the whole monograph industry. Does the photographer make money from monographs or does the publisher make money? You don't make money. The only way you can make money as a photographer is to do commercial work. Even with magazines, you kind of only get by. And I've never been a commercial photographer. Probably the most commercial book I'll ever do is the one on film sets, and not just because of my pictures but because I get some great people to write about being behind the scenes: Mike Nichols and Helen Mirren and Tim Burton and Buck Henry. They wrote beautiful things about their experiences behind the scenes. The writing is amazing in it. I'm so honored that these people agreed to write for this book.
Lára Lilja Gunnarsóttir floating in a therapeutic pool at Safamyrarskóli in Reykjavík
Lilja Kjartansdóttir at Safamyrarskóli after swimming. A caretaker had just wrapped her in towels to dry.
That does sound like something that will sell very well.
It's my first really commercial thing, and I didn't do it to be commercial. I did it because I had all these pictures, and someone gave me the idea to ask some of the people I know or had worked with to write something. And I didn't want them to write about me—it had to be about their experiences. A couple of pieces are very funny and insightful and interesting. It's the first book I've done that maybe has a chance of being commercial. The other work I do because I have to do it, because I love to do it.
You're also teaching photography, right?
I do a workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. I've worked there for 14 years. I also do workshops in Mexico a lot.
I assume that most of the students are on the younger side. Not necessarily. What's amazing about these workshops is that some people have taken the class ten times. They range in age from 16 to 60, and they range in jobs from cinematographers to businessmen. There's also a woman who's an airline stewardess who's learned to take amazing pictures. And there are people from Norway, people from Australia—people from all over the world come.
What level are they at when they come in? They can be at any level. They just have to want to do it.
So do people go out and shoot things and come back?
They have to go out and shoot, but not en masse. They have to go out by themselves. I look at everyone's work the first day. I have a wonderful assistant who's a great Mexican photographer and we find each person a separate assignment that could be good for him or her. It's a ten‑day workshop. They go out and shoot for about seven days. I make appointments with them every morning and individually look at their contact sheets, which I mark up. They go and process the film at night. There's a woman who took the class who I swear was schizophrenic, but she took great pictures. There's a whole range. It's a great class. We make a book at the end.
Do you ever go out on assignment and come back with nothing? Are there failures, or does it at least turn into something else? Well, I've had failures in the sense that... Let's see. Recently—and I'm not going to say who it was for—I did a portrait assignment that I thought carried into a documentary subject so I did it as a documentary subject. I happened to get a picture out of it that I love, so that's fine. But the magazine didn't want it. It's very painful when that happens.
How long have you actually gone without having a camera in your hands?
Well, when I'm out on the street I don't have a camera on me. I don't work all the time. Like today I'm in the studio and I have tons of things to do. Sometimes a month can go by where I don't use a camera. But when I teach, especially in Mexico, I'm very frustrated because I don't have the time to take pictures. I try to go out a little bit, but with so many hours of teaching it's really hard.
There is a quality in your photos that gives me the feeling that I'm not looking at a picture but instead that I'm really seeing that person in front of me and I have a relationship with them. It's very unusual.
That's what I try to do, but it's hard with documentary work. It can also be hard with subjects that are tough to take, because sometimes people don't want to look at them. But I think that everyone has a right to be seen.