The Real Life of Mary Ellen Mark
Rating: 9 / 10
The legendary photographer speaks bluntly about documentary portraiture, teaching students to tell stories, her career after nearly 45 years, and how the overuse of Photoshop is ruining the art form.
Article by Frank Lovece
True to her name, Mary Ellen Mark has left her mark. Forget the dozens of awards, grants and fellowships with titles like "Fulbright," "Guggenheim" and "Robert F. Kennedy." Forget the countless solo exhibitions in museums and galleries from the Whitney in New York City to the National Portrait Gallery in London to the Corcoran in Washington, DC. Forget even the 16 books of her work. Or, well, don't forget all that, but just keep them in background and pretend you don't know it – and then just look at any half-dozen of her photographs of real people caught in moments of pristine encapsulation, forgetting who took the pictures. I dare you to not say, "Wow. That's really amazing and a little depressing."
I'm not speaking "depressing" in the sense of low serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain. I mean depressing in the sense of the absurdity of the human condition. Mark's photos, whether of an obliviously bikinied fat old lady, little-girl twin ballet students, a bald Marlon Brando sitting and eyeing you with a spider on his head on the set of Apocalypse Now, or her most famous image, perhaps, that of a 13-year-old Seattle prostitute called Tiny, dressed for Halloween in a little black dress, pillbox hat and veil, staring like an angry Sphinx … they all make you want to ask why we are the way are.
At Mark's tucked-away studio in New York's Soho neighborhood one afternoon in May, things are dark and cheery. The photographer herself, at 69, is dressed in layers of bohemian black that matches her trademark pigtailed hair. She's wearing tinted glasses and chatting animatedly with a friend. Her studio manager and a couple of assistants are scattered at desks near the front, and her husband – Yorkshire, U.K., native Martin Bell, 70, a documentary filmmaker with whom Mark and writer-producer Cheryl McCall collaborated on the Academy Award-nominated documentary feature Streetwise (1984) – sits working at a computer station. Tall library racks of Mark's photographic material point toward the back of the loft, where a giant Canon iPF8100 printer rests on the floor, and on one wall hangs a blowup of another famous picture, a silhouette of Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon (1969). Mark likes robots, and so atop one cabinet is a cluster of toy and model mechanical men – an ironic counterpoint to the sheer humanity of her photographs.
Before the interview begins, Mark, reasonably enough, bemoans the state of magazine publishing, which has long been her bread and butter. She wants to speak only about her workshops, primarily her semi-annual, 10-day workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico. Other workshops include an International Center of Photography Master Critique weekend (July 25-26, 2009) in New York City. She only reluctantly delves into the nature of her own work and her feelings about her career. "I don't want this to be about my life story," she says in a follow-up phone call a few days later, and, given how thoroughly her life has been chronicled, it seems reasonable to promise that we'll include only two or three paragraphs of biography for the uninitiated.
Mark was born in suburban Philadelphia. Her mentally unstable father was institutionalized several times, and Mark has referred to her mother as "not a particularly stable person." Family photographs, she has said, made her "fascinated by that sense of time stopping and a moment being preserved forever." The oft-told story of her becoming a photographer at age 9 with a Brownie camera she discounts as no epiphany event – "Those were just silly pictures at camp and at school, pictures of friends," she tells me. Still, some of them eventually appeared in director Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge (1971), as part of a slideshow by Jack Nicholson's character.
After attending Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, where she was head cheerleader – "I was a very all-American teenager," she asserts, and a photo of her from her first book, Passport (Lustrum Press, 1974) does show a pretty, raven-haired young woman you could imagine cheering on the Cheltenham Panthers – Mark went on to the University of Pennsylvania. She then obtained her masters in photojournalism from that university's Annenberg School for Communication, followed by a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for a year.
In 1966, she recalls, she moved to New York City – and New York City moved her: Mark's photographs of what she once called "people on the edges … people who haven't had the best breaks in society" began establishing her reputation. Magazines from Life to Rolling Stone to The New Yorker beckoned, as did on-set portrait photography for movies, beginning with Satyricon and Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant (1969). Soon came books on topics ranging from women in an Oregon mental institution (Ward 81, Simon and Schuster, 1979), to prostitutes in India (Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), to homeless families in America (A Cry for Help: Stories of Homelessness and Hope, Simon and Schuster, 1996), to a Reykjavik school for disabled children (Extraordinary Child, The National Museum of Iceland, 2007). And there's lots more, but we promised.
Mark started off wielding a Leica 4 for most photographs and Nikons "for long-range shooting." Today, she says, "For 35mm, I use Leicas and Canons, and I use a Hasselblad for square format. I [also] use a Mimiya 7 and … I have a Linhof 4x5." She shoots primarily in black-and-white, using classic Kodak Tri-X film, although her next book, on high school proms, uses what she calls "the last of the Polaroid 20x24," a person-sized camera that makes poster-sized prints.
Otherwise, Mark says, her future lies mostly in teaching workshops. It's not a contradiction to wish her well in that, and to wish it weren't true.
TakeGreatPictures.com (TGP): Through most of your career, you've been drawn to shooting the disenfranchised.
Mary Ellen Mark (MEM): Well, y'know, I shoot all kinds of things – I'm working on a book now on proms. I've photographed famous people, too – I've done a lot of [shooting on the sets of] movies. But also I've also taken pictures of just ordinary people and ordinary street stuff. I'm like a photo essayist, a portrait photographer and a documentary photographer. I deal with reality.
TGP: Some photographers, like Ansel Adams, shoot landscapes. Others shoot still lifes, others abstraction. What do you think makes you specialize in people?
MEM: It's just something I've always been interested in. I don't understand why. It's just who I am. I find people fascinating. I like people – but I like reality, too. There's been such a turn away from reality in magazines – they're so different now. Everything is Photoshopped and changed and illustrated, more or less. The sense of the real photograph is gone. I mean, I used to buy magazines and look them and say, "Wow, look at the lighting, it's amazing," or, "Look at that incredible essay." But it doesn't exist anymore – it's all done in a computer. So I can't say, "Look at the lighting" because it's been done not by the photographer but by the retoucher, and the real art in that photo-illustration is retouching.
TGP: There's still good documentary photography being done of ordinary people. Like the book Driftless: Stories from Iowa by Danny Wilcox Frazier, or the essay "Common Ground" by Scott Strazzante on the site MediaStorm.org.
MEM: But there are fewer and fewer people working in that genre, and it's more about working on computer. That's why I'm [putting] a lot of emphasis on teaching now. I do two [workshops] a year in Oaxaca, one in July and one in February. It's a beautiful town. I started doing that workshop 15 years ago and I got to know the town and people. Mexico's a fantastic country, Oaxaca's a beautiful, beautiful place.
TGP: Worried about swine flu?
MEM: (scoffs good-naturedly). No, you can get swine flu in the city. I'm not worried about it. As far as teaching, when I teach a workshop like Oaxaca, what's great about it is that it's 10 days long and I look at [the students'] contact sheets every day. I'm really proud of the work they produce. As a matter of fact we're doing a book called Quinceaños [for which] we sent e-mails to all the students over 15 years, and we've gotten a huge response, over 200 students, and 70 have sent me work. We're doing it in Oaxaca with my assistant down there, Marcela Tobada and another friend of mine named Trine Ellitsgaard, who is an artist [and the wife of famed Mexican artist Francisco Toledo]. They're gonna edit it with me and we're gonna put together an exhibition that will travel all over Mexico.
[Later, Mark shows me some collated photocopies of Oaxaca students' work, including, from July 2008, the actor Michael Richards. Mark: "He did beautiful work. It was great for him to work in a place where he wasn't recognized."]
Some people shoot digitally in the class, but that's fine – they're shooting it just like film. But in the workshop there' s no Photoshop – they're real pictures. It's hard to take real pictures. You have to look in the camera, see something and in a moment make that decision. [You must judge] where your frame is, especially if you're shooting in the street and have to take a picture immediately.
TGP: What's the hardest part of it?
MEM: I think it's all hard. Making a really great picture is really hard.
TGP: How do you get people to let themselves be photographed, to walk up to perfect strangers and have them let you take their picture?
MEM: Well, sometimes they don't know – you're just shooting pictures on the street. I think it's just a question of the confidence you have. If you seem very insecure and afraid, they're gonna be afraid to let you take their picture. Most people don't object to being photographed. You have to project yourself, in a way You can't be pushy. But you have to be confident.
TGP: How long do you spend with a person?
MEM: It depends. It can be a moment and it can be an hour. Sometimes I'll go and take a group of people and then I'll just stay with them and photograph what they do and hang around.
TGP: What's the difference between a subject looking straight into the camera and not?
MEM: There's sort of an intensity, where it's an exchange between the photographer and the subject, when they're looking at you. And when they're not, [either because they're unaware or] when they're aware and they ignore you and look away, it's a different kind of moment.
TGP: In what way?
MEM: It depends. One's not better than the other. In one you're a participant and in the other you're an observer.
TGP: Aside from Your famous color photographs of prostitutes on Mumbai's Falkland Road, you're best known for shooting black-and-white. What does black-and-white say to you that color doesn't?
MEM: It's kind of an abstraction, a black-and-white picture. With the kind of subject matter that I love most, it works. Like the picture of Fellini up there [a silhouette on the set of Satyricon]. That wouldn't be the same if it were in color. It's just an abstraction, a suggestion. It's been copied that picture, in an ad – it's been copied in an American Express ad. Not with my permission.
TGP: Isn't it a copyrighted picture?
MEM: They've changed it just enough. (sighs) I have to really concentrate seriously on teaching now. I'm no longer really a magazine photographer.
TGP: Whoa. OK, I'm having trouble processing that. This is like Martin Scorsese saying, "I'm no longer really a film director." I'm flabbergasted.
MEM: It flabbergasts me, also. I've put my life into this. Can you imagine how I feel? I'm not a photo-illustrator, so therefore I'm not a magazine photographer, I don't quality anymore. And yet I've done some of the best stuff that's been in magazines ever. It's a very tough world, this business. And now I think because of what's happened in the economy, people more and more want illustrations.
TGP: Do you have any desire to learn Photoshop and go that route?
MEM: I'll never want to do it. I mean, my work is my work. So I have to feel that the rest of my life is gonna be about teaching and selling my [existing] work. And occasionally doing an assignment. Maybe working on an occasional movie. But y'know, before I was traveling constantly and working. But that's the way this business works.
TGP: On the other hand, you were born in 1940. No one would think less of you for wanting to rest at this stage of life.
MEM: But I'm not ready to stop. I'm better than I ever was. I still really believe in the kind of photography I've loved. I mean, I'm still doing another book. It's just very tough.
When things are great, they last forever. And that's the hope that I have for the work that I've done, that it will last, that it's more than just kind of, y'know, pictures of celebrities doing silly things. The pictures I've done of celebrities, they go beyond that. And that's what's important – the work has to sustain itself forever, and that's what you wanna leave.
TGP: Y'know, you don't need me to tell you your legacy is solid! (laughs)
MEM: Well, but the thing is that – what's so painful now – is that why don't people at magazines see that and call me to work for them? That's why teaching is so important to me. And selling my work is important to me. That's where I see my future.
TGP: So in your workshops, then, what kinds of specific things do you teach your students?
MEM: I'm just teaching them to look, and to translate what they see onto a piece of film. Or digitally – it doesn't matter. I want them to look at reality and tell me what they see. I'm looking at their contact sheets and I'm saying, "Tell me why you took this picture and what you wanted to say." And then I'll say, for example, if it's the case, "You're too far away – I don't see it clearly. You have to show me the elements that tell me this." [They have to] think about what they want to say with their camera. Be true to themselves.
TGP: That's excellent advice, though it's very general. What is it that makes a "Mary Ellen Mark workshop" unique to you?
MEM: A particular point of view and a way of looking at the world. And I think that everyone has to develop that. Sometimes it's with humor, sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's ironic. It has to have an emotional power, the image. It has to work on that level.
It doesn't matter to me if its digital or if it's on film, although personally I prefer film; I think it's more beautiful. What matters to me is that they don't then alter [their photos]. It's one thing altering it in the darkroom, making a good print, or using Photoshop like a darkroom. That's OK. But when they start changing images and overdramatizing it, making a stupid image overdramatized because it's Photoshopped, I just can't stand looking at that.
TGP: How do you see yourself at this stage of your career?
MEM: I'm very, very lucky to have had the opportunity to make the photographs I've made. I have no regrets about that. I have no regrets I choose a path about reality and about real people. I have no regrets. I could have become a fashion photographer or just a celebrity photographer, but I'm glad I took the path I took. I think what's happened in photography now is so different, because it's hard to blend photography with illustration, and that's not what I'm interested in. I never wanted to be an illustrator. I'm fascinated with reality and that's what interests me and real pix are what interest me. I like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank. They don't need to go to a retoucher and change things. The great art, what they do, is to capture a moment, and that's hard to do. And that's the way they ought to do it. And I respect that and I honor that and that's always what I wanted to do.