Mary Ellen Mark: The intimate power of photography
By SAMANTHA M. SHAPIRO
Photographs by GREG MARTIN and MARY ELLEN MARK
Of the thousands of faces Mary Ellen Mark has shot during her long award-winning
career as a documentary photographer, few of them smile. "I do not like smiling," Mark says. A smile is false. When an animal bares its teeth, it is an act of aggression or defensiveness, and I think that is what it is in people. It is never real for me."
Instead, in Mark's work- in portraits of celebrities, street kids in Seattle, cancer patients, Vietnamese circus performers or Mother Theresa - we see faces wrenched in pain, lit with mystery, clouded by drugs, jaws hardened defiantly, or eyes bright with possibility.
Mark draws this raw humanity into every shot by establishing an intimacy with her subjects and their surroundings. "I much prefer to know my subjects," she says, noting that she has been able to revisit several of them many times over her thirty-year career. In 'American Odyssey," her most recent book, which collects photos taken in the United States from 1963-1999, we see "Tiny," a girl who lives on the street at age 14', when she is starting to work as a prostitute and meet her again at age 30 with kids of her own. The hardness and sadness in her eyes stays constant as her body billows and creases with age. Tiny was originally featured in Mark's 1983 LIFE magazine photo essay and then again in 1988's "Streetwise", an Academy-award-nominated documentary shot by Mark and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell.
Mark says she gets attached to her subjects and sometimes finds it painful to say goodbye. "It is harder for you than them. In part, you feel guilty about leaving them?' But intimate contact with people is part of what lured Mark, who studied painting in the early 1960's, into the world of photography. She knew the first time she took a camera to the streets that it was for her: "it was a way to see the world, to be on the street, and not in the studio."
Much of Mark's work has been generated by assignments for magazines like LIFE, LOOK, The New York Times Magazine, Paris Match, The Times and Rolling Stone. Mark says that the last few decades have seen a decline in the market for documentary photography in magazines, although she thinks that in the wake of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the demand for documentary photos "opened up a bit."
Mark was not in her downtown Manhattan studio on September 11, but said that even if she was, she would not have gone closer to the towers with her camera, as many photographers did, "I am not a news photographer. I do not like herds of people, I like contact with individuals and private situations. I took some pictures of the shrines and the aftermath of the bombing, but as far as I am concerned the only pictures were of the event itself, those 12 hours, and I was not shooting then?'
Although much of Mark's work is driven by a quest to reveal the unseen - the people who society ignores or might like to ignore - another parallel track in her work has been portraits of celebrities, the over-seen.
It was while on an assignment shooting movie stars that Mark landed upon a project that defined her as a documentary photographer and informed much of her later work. In 1976, while taking movie stills of Jack Nicholson on location for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Mark asked the director of the mental ward if she could stay and photograph the patients. For a month she and a partner ate meals, slept and lived among the female residents of Ward 81, documenting their lives with an unflinching honesty and closeness. "I was always interested in mental illness, partly because my father suffered a nervous breakdown when I was growing up and partly because in third grade we took a trip from my school to a local asylum. I was fascinated then and still am.' Mark says the time she spent photographing Ward 81 had a great influence on her style: "I learned a lot about personalities there. They have identities and roles, just like any group of people, but they are very exaggerated and they say things we would not.... Being there made me more perceptive and gave me a sense of how far to go with people, how close to get."
Mark bristles at the idea that shots like those are exploitative. "They show tough things, I show a retarded person and people think because they could not take the picture themselves, therefore it's exploitative. But fashion pictures show young boys in tight underpants or young girls I think that is exploitative. To say photos that have to do with fashion or commerce are not exploitative and that someone's reality is exploitative makes me angry. Reality is hard to deal with sometimes."
In spite of the often very grim realities her pictures portray, Mark says none of her subjects have ever complained about the way they appear. "The only person who ever called me was a cartoonist who I took a portrait of. He said his nose looked big, which I thought was funny, since he draws people and exaggerates their features in ways that make them look hideous!" Mark says the only things that should not be photographed are things the subjects themselves don't want to show. "People show you what they want to show you. And people want their lives documented. Tiny was a prostitute and she used lots of drugs, but that's her life. I believe people want you to see their lives.'
That is, unless the people are celebrities, who Mark still photographs frequently for magazines. Mark finds taking their picture to be more of a challenge than photographing 'regular' people. "There are so many public relations people around and you can't go beyond what they allow you to see. In those situations I do anything to look for clues for their personality, things that are not overprotected. But with unknown people you can really get more."
Mark says working on celebrity or fashion pictures makes it financially possible for her to pursue her own projects, regardless of their marketability. "I have thought of magazine assignments as grants that allow me to do my own work," she says, and indeed the week of this interview found her doing a shoot for Vanity Fair one day, and the next traveling to upstate New York to take large highly detailed photos of twins for a personal project.
Fashion shots or celebrity portraits do more than pay the bills; Mark said that learning to work in a studio, rather than on the street, has been valuable for her other work. "In a studio you start with nothing, as opposed to all the material that is already there when you work on the street or on location. In the studio, it is all about the lighting, about making people look a certain way. Doing celebrity portraits or fashion has helped me to do better portraiture in general. They are not the pictures of mine that will live on, but the challenge to do them well has been useful."
When Mark, who was recently voted by readers of American Photo Magazine "Most Influential Woman Photographer of All Time" got her start, there were almost no women in documentary photography. Today the numbers are still very low. Mark says that in general she has found her gender to be an advantage in her field; "people are less threatened by me so I get greater access. Prostitutes in India or women like Tiny trust me and I can photograph them in their bath or homes without it being an issue. In general, if a woman knocks on your trailer door and wants to take your picture, I think you are more like to let her in than a man?' Mark laments, however, that women in the field have to make difficult choices about whether or not to have children that men can prolong for much longer. At sixty, Mark does not have children. Her photos, the attention she gives her subjects and the ways she captures what is universal and unique about their humanity will be her legacy. "I never wanted children, but I do know something is lost by not having them... I am glad that I have a body of work that is my own," she says.
Mark is strictly faithful to the medium that has taken her around the world and won her so many awards; she recently turned down an offer to go to Africa for a photo project because all the photos had to be shot with a digital camera. "I need a negative, call me outdated, but it is all in the negative for me. I have them filed and stored and the idea of working without one, without having something there, something to save ...I just cannot do it." What does she love so much about the medium of traditional black and white photography? She gestures to the photos that line her studio walls, photos that span decades by artists she admires. "It is hard to figure out what makes these shots work. I could not explain what it is. I guess that is why I still take pictures, to figure it out"
Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Stranger and other US publications.
Mark has followed many of her subjects' lives for years. She photographed Tiny for the first time as a prostitute at the age of 14, and later as a 30-year-old mother.
Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington, 1983
Mark's photographic style was greatly influenced by a project during which she lived in a mental ward and photographed the patients.
Laurie in the Ward 81 Tub, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976
In Mark's view, photographing celebrities is a challenging task, because they have learned to protect their personalities.
226U-001-055 Blues singer Etta James and Strappy, Riverside, California, 1997
When photography became an art
When photography was introduced, it was viewed like painting in an art exhibit. The original photos, daguerreotypes, were printed on pieces of metal and could not be reproduced. The only way of copying them was to take the picture with two cameras side-by-side. When William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the Calotype in 1839, the photo quality was inferior. However the principle - that the photo is printed on chemically treated paper, so an unlimited number of prints can be made - redefined photography's uses. It spawned a number of photography-based magazines, like "Photographic Notes," a journal where Henri Le Secq, Charles Negre, and Maxime Du Camp published their works, and The Amateur Photographer, known today as the AR Although some photographic processes have side-stepped the use of paper altogether, their reproduction in magazines retains a central role.