As I negotiated with Mary Ellen Mark’s able staff to find a suitable time for our interview, I found myself in a place I rarely am: nervous. Feeling fortunate my calls were even being returned, I spent time reviewing photos from her long and prolific career: ones I knew well and loved, others new and just as moving. It didn’t seem quite like reality that I would be speaking with the photographic legend responsible for work I had admired for years. Fortunately, Ms. Mark’s legendary body of work is no indicator of the warm individual willing to reveal anything to do with her life and art I asked her.
There are no end to the accolades and citations documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark has won for her portraiture and photojournalism. Among many are three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, and the Cornell Capa Award by the International Center of Photography in 2001. Her work has appeared in LIFE, Look, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
Originally hailing from the Philadelphia suburbs, Mary Ellen began her photographic oddessy shooting a Brownie at age nine. She stayed in the area, eventually attending the University of Pennsylvania to earn a BFA degree in Painting and Art History. Two years later she received a Master’s Degree in Photojournalism from the Annenberg School for Communication. She has travelled the world to photograph what interests her, and her interests have proved both wide and deep. A year after her Master’s, a Fulbright Scholarship took her to Turkey for a year of intense photography of everything she encountered. She also included Western European countries and didn’t return to the U.S. for two years.
When she came home in 1967, the world was changing. She moved to New York in time to document everything from anti-war protests to what most now regard as the common thread in her work: people on the edge. “I’m interested in people who have had it hard,” she says. “Life’s very different when you’re not living comfortably. I felt drawn to documenting the lives of people who live precariously on the edge.”
Her personal projects kept her busy with the displaced and dispossesed, but her commercial work as a still photographer for motion pictures made an important link for her and the career we’ve come to know her by. Shooting everything from Alice’s Restaurant to Fellini’s Satyricon, she eventually made her way to the Pacific Northwest to shoot stills on the set of Carnal Knowledge, and later, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The latter film, by Milos Forman, brought her to the now-famed Oregon State Mental Hospital. She returned three years later and documented the female patients there in the 1979 book Ward 81. The images are stark, haunting, and some, even hopeful of recovery. At this stage in her career, her unflinching view of the best of humanity under the hardest of circumstances had coalesced.
In 1978 she went to India, where she photographed Bombay’s Falkland Road prostitutes. Unlike Ward 81, the resulting photos from this trip are in color: deeply saturated and not as close up as many of the Oregon photos, showing the hard surroundings and way of life of the prostitutes. The rich colors of the walls and buildings is often overlayed with edginess of the human subjects and their lives, creating a hard to ignore juxatposition. These photos were the basis of Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, from Alfred A Knopf, 1981.
She returned to both black and white film and the United States for her next projects. Again in the Pacific Northwest, Mark documented the lives of Seattle’s street children. Her husband, Martin Bell, eventually made the film titled Streetwise, which, like his wife’s photographs, documented people on the edge—this time children working as prostitutes, panhandlers, and dealers. The most iconic of these photographs is one of Erin Blackwell, known on the street as Tiny. She is dressed in black for Halloween, albeit as a French prostitute. These photos eventually were collected in 1988′s Streetwise, from the University of Pennsylvania Press. “I’m still in touch with Tiny, and still photograph her from time to time,” reports Mark.
Mark’s next subject was the Damm family of Los Angeles, shot for LIFE magazine. The family of four were living in a car, and her black and white vision beneath the bright Southern California sun, is as emotional as ever.
While shooting people on the edge, from Indian street performers to down and out American rodeo hands, Mark has also documented celebrities for decades, from Ansel Adams to Robin Williams. These black and white portraits often seem to not only bring out what we expect of Mark’s subjects—the dignity of Coretta Scott King, the sexiness of Pamela Anderson—but something more vulnerable and human, such as a wise Norman Mailer with a pug in his lap which looks remarkably like him, or Woody Allen appearing completely at ease. Results like these are a testament to how Mark disarms politicians and Hollywood royalty alike. “It’s easy to photograph actors because they’re actors,” Mark says. “Someone like Jeff Bridges, whom I’ve known a long time, is willing to show you many sides of himself. Some can not want to show you those sides. It depends on the individual. Celebrities are used to being photographed, and it’s always harder to get people not used to that to open up. They’re more guarded.”
Primarily known as a documentary photographer, in addition to her celebrity portraits, Mark’s advertising work boasts clients such as Barnes and Noble, Coach Bags, Eileen Fisher, Heineken, Keds, and Nissan.
Although there is not much this living legend of photography hasn’t focused her lens on, one thing has remained consistent across her varied subject matter. “I love film,” she says. ”I shoot the Mamiya RZ, the 7, and the 645. I like the 645 for street work, but for studio work, I use the RZ. On the street I use a 50mm lens, which is too wide for in the studio. It’s too distorting, and I don’t like studio pictures where the subject is distorted. I actually hate them,” she says laughing. “You need to get up closer in the studio.”
Mark uses TRI-X film for her Mamiya cameras. “I can see the value of digital, but I can see the value of analog, too. I choose to continue working in film a lot. I love the beauty and depth of it, particularly in black and white.”
“I use some flash on my street photography, which surprises people,” Mark says. “Sometimes I use it as the key, sometimes I use it as the fill. It depends what the existing situation is: the existing light and the background. In bright sunlight, I would definitely use it as a strong fill. If the light is very dead and overcast, I might try to pump it up. It depends. I try to vary it each time and just feel how much of flash it needs as a fill. Sometimes I just use it the tiniest, tiniest bit. Sometimes I just really throw it in there. I feel what I think it needs for each situation.”
While there are clearly no set technical rules for Mark, she’s quick to use the tool she feels is best suited for each job. “I love medium format, but I also like 35mm. It’s different. If it works, it works. But there’s something about the amount of detail in the medium format I really love; the presence of it. Other times the 35mm format just works. You go by feel.”
“The things you choose to photograph are things which have become part of your life,” Mark explains. “The next book I’m doing is a book on proms. Prom is important to so many people. I still have my prom photo. It’s something I never forgot. My husband is working on a film about this. We went around the country researching it. I’m not using film on this project. It’s all Polaroid, with a big camera—20 x 24. It seemed to be the right medium for the project.” Due out from Abrams in 2011, the book has been five years in the making: four years of shooting, one of editing.
When not shooting or editing, Mark teaches at Woodstock, New York and Oaxaca, Mexico, among other locations. “The work my students do in Oaxaca is very inspiring to me. I’m very proud of them. It’s great work,” she says.
Near the end of our talk, I expressed some concern over my own art. “You just have to feel what’s right. Don’t think too hard. Feel.” That’s a truth all artists should be reminded of from time to time. Thank you, Ms. Marks, for that and more.
Written by Ron Egatz