Making her Mark
August 1993

Beetlemania: Marlon Brando, photographed during the filming of Apocalypse Now.

For twenty‑five years now, the intense, arresting, slightly off‑centre photographs of Mary Ellen Mark have been appearing in print. Through her lens, and thanks to magazines such as Look (now defunct) and Life, she has captured such odd outcroppings of human experience as blind Russian orphans, lepers, insane women in an Oregon asylum, patients in Mother Teresa's home for the dying in Calcutta, British heroin addicts shooting up in toilets, homeless children and families, fat ladies, rich WASPs, lesbians in bars, and young whores with their clients in a Bombay brothel. Along the way there have been the obligatory photographs of movie stars and directors who, as all journalists know, are the guys who pay the rent. Mary Ellen Mark's choice of subjects has opened her to charges of sensationalism, but in every one of her pictures she conveys a sense of immediacy, of belonging to the world she photographs. Her pictures are remarkable for the trust with which the subjects hand themselves over to the photographer. The ragged, sad, crazy edges of life are what have always appealed to Mary Ellen Mark. She goes out of her way to find them. As she said, sitting at a long table in her office, playing with the rings on her hands: "Aren't you interested in what's less normal?"

Tiny, in Hallowe’en costume, 1983. A teenager who lived on the streets of Seattle, in and out of trouble with the law, Tiny featured in the film Streetwise which Mary Ellen Mark made with her husband Martin Bell.

Mary Ellen Mark does not have a studio; she has a library instead, half a floor of a building in SoHo where her accumulated work, hundreds of thousands of photographs, are digitally recorded on computer. The discrepancy between the situations she records ‑the orphaned children, usually in difficult circumstances, the asylums, slums, hospices and whorehouses‑ and the perfectly organised, radiantly attractive premises where they are all gathered into perfect grey boxes is less shocking than, somehow, soothing. There is a grey carpet, some twenty-five computer screens, copying machines, and high, solid grey shelves on which the boxes live, along the top of which are gathered primitive wooden animals: playful order, perfect discipline, high tech. The space is so expansive and the windows so wide that an entire SoHo house can be seen, contained in the view from one of the wide windows; the compression of a house so eerily close and eerily narrow, with its life inside so open to view, suggests that everything outside this archive falls open to Mark's gaze.

Mary Ellen Mark herself is a slim woman, fifty but you wouldn't know it, with high cheekbones, dark eyes and a thick braid of black hair down her back. Clad in the right kind of Japanese clothes ‑ tight, shiny T‑shirts under nun‑like but wittily cut panels of dark, flat wool- she wears different little earrings in holes along her ear lobes, a sombre necklaces one at a time- matt brown amber beads, or a silver and turquoise pendant ‑booty chosen with a sure eye, and lugged back from her travels. The high style without shine is reassuring: it's relief to know that even loaded down with equipment (four Nikon FM2 cameras and seven lenses; four Leicas and five Leitz lenses; one Polaroid, four Hasselblads, strobes and light meters) in the depths of Kerala on the trail of an elusive circus, she has an eye out for the interesting stuff in the bazaar. "She's the world's greatest shopper," says old friend Valerie Wade. "When she's in India she does the bazaar and when she comes to London, she really does Covent Garden."

Mary Ellen wears jewelry brought back from her travels. (Albert Watson)

Leo Lerman, who as features editor of American Vogue worked with Mary Ellen for many years, talks of her with a kind of astonished respect. "She belongs to that side of photography that is more art than photography. When you sent her out, you knew you wouldn't get anything ordinary, so you had to bend your own part of the work to accommodate it. There's nothing superficial there ‑ she's always inside her vital moment and manages to become the intensity of that moment. That's the definition of a real artist, so you always took the chance." Besides these risky, glossy commissions, Mark's main outlet was documentary magazines such as the weekly Life (now a bland monthly) which provided the perfect forum for all photographers because it gave them long‑term assignments that allowed them total immersion in their subjects. She deplores the dwindling of these publications, but has survived it better than many of her colleagues, since forced into commercial and industrial work. According to Lee Gross, Mark's agent from 1971 to 1976, "Mary Ellen has just barrelled on, with extraordinary integrity."

I knew her first through her work on films, when companies would hire great photographers to do special reportage on the set for a month or two at a time. She was on John Schlesinger's Day of the Locust and Marathon Man, on Milos Forman's Ragtime, on Coppola's Apocalypse Now. She had been on a theatrical safari through Africa with Peter Brook. I knew she went to India and cared more about that than any of the actors and directors, who might be good friends. "In some way, she never came back from India,” says one friend. "It informs all of her work; even the Seattle street kids were really Calcutta." When, twelve years ago, she handed me her pictures of Mother Teresa's home for the dying in Calcutta, immaculate black and white prints from a stiff new cardboard box, I was at a complete loss. It was in her apartment loft, where Indian bronze gods were crammed on to every surface, Tibetan hangings and Chinese paintings on glass filled the walls; it was a storehouse of refined, compelling traveller's finds. I remember fixing on a Chinese painting for relief, because the essence, the emotion of those black and white prints of Mother Teresa and her charges was so much in another dimension from where we were that I could say nothing. "Beautiful" is a cheap word; "Oh my God" can only be said once. Black and white impenetrable anguish, devotion, serenity, black and white purity, black and white pain. Her best pictures command silence.

The most Mary Ellen can say about one of her photographs is, "It's so... so... so... isn't it?" Lee Gross says of her: "It's like trying to get Chaplin to explain why he was funny. She has a gift. Her manner is almost retiring, but her eye is extraordinary." What Mary Ellen Mark said that day about her Calcutta pictures was passionate but imprecise, because she never finishes a sentence. The pictures do that for her. They challenge, disturb, disorient. They shock: the barely teenage Bombay prostitutes with their clients; the gaze of the bad; the helplessness of the dying. W.H. Auden wrote: "There are events which arouse such simple and obvious emotions that an AP cable or a photograph in Life magazine are enough and poetic comment is impossible."

Mary Ellen Mark is not an introspective woman; she is honest and direct. She was born in Philadelphia, where her father was an architect and builder; he had breakdowns. "I didn't have a great relationship with my parents," she says. "It was a very lonely household, not a happy home. I think that shapes you for your whole life, gives you the drive to do something. But it's also something you live with for ever, that never heals. I was always left on my own as a kid; my father was sick all the time. I left home my first year as a student and an aunt paid for me to live at college, so there was never any sense of holidays with the family. I worked in a boutique, waitressed in Cape May, lied about my age." As a child she loved looking at photographs, particularly old family pictures and a book by John Steinbeck, illustrated with black and white photos, called The Forgotten Village. She regrets not having photographed the pyjama parties and Hallowe'en nights of her childhood, "those rituals which are so interesting and so symbolic of youth. When you don't have one of those happy homes, you are into dressing up and putting yourself together." She did take photos of her friends, however; her wallet was full of them, and she handed many of them over to the director Mike Nichols for Jack Nicholson's "Ball Busters" slide show in the film Carnal Knowledge. As the snaps of fresh‑faced American girls came up on the screen, Nicholson's character commented on their shortcomings. Mary Ellen remains ingenuous: "You can't duplicate that innocence," she says.

Street Girl, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965. Mark describes this as her first really good image. The adult pose belies the childish face.

Candice Bergen, herself an amateur photographer, remembers Mark at the University of Pennsylvania: "A woman I passed often on campus caught my attention as much for her striking dark looks as for the fact that she wore a Leica around her neck as constantly as other co‑eds wore circle pins,” writes Bergen in her book Knock Wood.

“She was Mary Ellen Mark, now considered to be this generation's Bourke‑White... I was awed by her single‑mindedness: that she spent summers on scholarship in Turkey photographing rather than on a beach or beside a pool." One of Mark's many startling photographs is of an old woman, a leper, whose shrunken white head is being held almost as a little holy statue by a vast black nurse. It was taken at the National Hansen’s disease centre in Louisiana three years ago for Life magazine, which never ran the story. "It's very naked, the act of photographing, and it's easier with someone you don't know. I went in and asked permission and took the picture. You have to be direct. If you don't ask, you lose. If you feel intimidated, you lose. People have to give me something, let me see something about them that's personal. It's not the glittery thing of having a concept."

Despite this sang‑froid and the acts of daring, when she's not working Mary Ellen is really more timid than she seems. She says she had never slept rough until she went to Africa with Brook, and although her photographs suggest that she is living the exact life of her subjects, she usually stays in hotels. Lee Gross, who as her agent was in awe of Mary Ellen's courage, was surprised to find that when she, Mary Ellen, and Mary Ellen's husband were walking down 9th Avenue in the dangerous blocks of the forties in New York, "Mary Ellen was scared. She kept saying, 'Let's just get a cab.' This is the woman who phoned me from under the bed in a brothel. It's when she gets behind the camera that she becomes fearless."

If there's any connecting link in her gallery of outsiders, it is the image of provocative young girls. What she calls "my first really good image" is the picture of a Turkish girl in a ruffled frock, white ankle socks and shoes with straps. Shot in 1965, the child wears a white bow on her ponytail, but stands like a model, pensive finger on narrow chin, cheeks sucked in, two fingers on her thigh. Her eyes have dark lines under them, and a crescent‑shaped scar cuts the bridge of her nose. "This was the first picture I took that I felt had bite to it. It takes a long time to figure out what you want to say with that machine."

Amanda and her cousin Amy, North Carolina, 1990. "She had a really vulgar mouth. She was brilliant."

The Damm family in their car, where they lived, 1987. Finally they were admitted to a temporary shelter. One of the children, traumatised, lay down under the hot water in the shower in a foetal position.

Twenty‑five years later in North Carolina she photographed another girl, Amanda: "She's smoking a cigarette, she's on the edge, she's my favourite. She was so bad she was wonderful, she had a really vulgar mouth, she was brilliant," says Mark, who segues into "I was something of a problem kid. I was emotional, wild, rebellious at school. I'm very touched by kids who don't have advantages; they are much more interesting than kids who have everything. They have a lot of passion and emotion, such a strong will."

She first went to India in 1968 on a six‑month grant from Kodak. "For ten years I tried to take photographs on Falkland Road [Bombay's red-light district, notorious for its barely teenage prostitutes displayed behind windows barred like cages). Each time I was met with hostility and aggression," she wrote in the book of photographs published to commemorate twenty‑five years of her work, Mary Ellen Mark (Little, Brown, £22.50). Eventually the street prostitutes befriended her, and by the end she and the madam of one house, Saroja, were best friends. She made a book of the disturbingly intimate series (Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, Knopf, US), shot in dusty colour and showing close‑ups of the prostitutes ‑ women, very young girls and transvestites ‑ including their work. In dispassionate sentences she wrote, "Asha hates being a prostitute. She dreams of being a servant" and of the transvestites, "I learned that many of them are eunuchs, castrated at an early age." About Mark they had a limited curiosity. "They wanted to know only my age, why I didn't wear a brassiere, and why I wasn't married. I think the reason I was finally accepted was that I was single ‑ alone in the world like they were. One madam told me: 'We are sisters. You and I are fated for the same life. Every night I say my prayers and sleep alone."

It didn't quite turn out like that. Shortly after the Falkland Road series, Mary Ellen was in London on the set of Ragtime photographing James Cagney, whose last film it was to be. Also on the set was an English cameraman, Martin Bell, who was shooting a documentary on Cagney for British television. Their first conversation was about Indian circuses; they soon met up again in Bali, this time on purpose, and went to India. They have been married for eleven years now. Until Martin Bell, Mary Ellen was a romantic figure with long‑distance alliances to interesting, often bearded, sometimes older men. Bell has a beard but is present, and exudes a wry steadiness. "I never thought I'd actually meet anyone to have the kind of life I like with," she says. "I could never have fitted into a relationship that tied me. I had to have my work." Lee Gross claims, "Martin and Mary Ellen make a perfect couple: he's articulate and specific, she's... not."

Ram Prakash Singh and his elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1990. “I waited for eye contact with the elephant,” says Mark.

When Mark went to Seattle to shoot street children for Life magazine, Martin Bell joined her. Together they made the remarkable documentary Streetwise, in which they followed ‑ and earned the trust of‑ a band of teenage runaways. Among them was Tiny, a girl who lived on the streets to avoid her alcoholic mother. The image of Tiny in a veiled hat, cocktail dress and black gloves became the poster for Streetwise, and Tiny herself became a long‑distance fixture in their lives. She wanted Martin and Mary Ellen to adopt her, but when they told her that she would have to go to school every day she dropped the idea, and confined herself to calling them for bail money at regular intervals. "She was in and out of trouble, in bad shape from drugs," says Mary Ellen. "Of course, that was before she had children. She was thirteen or fourteen. She's still beautiful, but she's beaten down."

After Streetwise, Martin Bell began a feature film about the Seattle street children, heavily inspired by Mary Ellen's work. The fictional format allowed him to include real‑life situations outside the law, which can't be used in documentary. "Fiction is for going places you can't go in real life," says Bell. American Heart, starring Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong, the child from Terminator Two, opened to great acclaim this summer in the US; a raw, sad story about a man who gets out of prison and against his will leads his son into a life on the streets.

Mary Ellen shot a full reportage and more on the making of American Heart, of which she was associate producer. But her latest enterprise, and one which also involves her husband, is the world of itinerant Indian circuses. Bell has just made a beautiful short documentary for National Geographic TV about Pinky, a contor­tionist in The Great Royal Circus. Pinky is a talented, tiny waif with huge eyes and thick eyebrows who sends money home to her mother, whom Mark and Bell tracked down in a remote village. Mary Ellen's involvement with circuses dates back twenty years, and her relationships with the hippopotamus trainers, the dwarfs, the magicians and dogs and bears and clowns, are as intense in black and white as those with the prostitutes were in colour. Ram Prakash Singh and his elephant Shyama just seems like a nice, jokey prank ‑ the elephant's trunk curved like a question mark around the man's neck ‑ until you look at the elephant's face. "I waited for eye contact with the elephant," says Mary Ellen, and there it is: mistrustful, weary, penetrating, the elephant's eye stares right back at you, engaging a very different dialogue from that of the bleary, dark orbs of Mr Singh. There's a wisdom in children and animals ‑ with children most of all, be they "bad” children or criminal children or runaway, free children that has nothing to do with words and everything to do with understanding. It's not something that Mary Ellen Mark can address directly, but from behind her myriad cameras she has captured, and continues to capture, an uncivilised purity that defies words.

"Mary Ellen Mark' an exhibition of photographs, is on show at the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, from July 30.