Mary Ellen Mark



Mary Ellen Mark

Portrait as Document

by A. D. Coleman


Since the beginning of her photographic work in the 1960s, Mary Ellen Mark has oscillated between two radically different types of milieu: movie sets and other celebrity contexts, mostly Hollywood-subsidized, where large groups of very well-paid people collaborate on creating complex fictions, and the real-world environments in which everyday people -- often, though not always, people in crisis -- negotiate their day-to-day activities, their relationships, and, sometimes, their very survival.

Notably, Mark's back-and-forth movement from one sort of microcosm to another has not led her to glamorize people in crisis, nor to view the moviemakers with a jaundiced eye. In all cases she approaches her subjects neither in awe nor judgementally, but instead with a combination of genuine interest and palpable respect. (Mark says, "If people don’t like you and don’t trust you, you are not going to get great pictures.") As the images reveal, she has the invaluable, conjoined abilities so necessary to the craft of photographic portraiture: evoking a notable presentation of self from the subject, while convincing the viewer that the light bouncing off the person in that fraction of a second to register on her film has revealed something important about his or her inner life.

She shares these skills in various ways with movie directors, cinematographers, and actors, around whom she has spent much of her professional life. Mark, who describes the environment of the film set as a "surreal atmosphere," says of this film work, "Sometimes a magazine assigns me a story but, more often, I am hired by the film studio as what is called a 'special stills photographer.'" Over the years she has photographed on over 100 film sets, including such classics as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Federico Fellini's Satyricon, producing thousands of images of those celluloid dreams in the making. In addition to using the income from that application of her craft to subsidize her personal projects, she credits her access to the moviemaking environment with enhancing skills she's applied in the creation and development of her independent undertakings. "My own experience of observing this world has helped me immensely in my work outside of it," she explains, "whether it's directing my subjects, finding the best way to use light, working with stylists, or producing a project."

Certainly it's proved invaluable also in the creation of the several documentary films on which she's collaborated with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell: Streetwise (1985), Circus of Dreams (1993), Twins (2002), Erin (2005), Alexander (2006), and Prom (2010). These films have been screened internationally; Streetwise, which is feature-length, received a 1985 Oscar nomination. In most cases -- Streetwise, Circus of Dreams, Erin, and Alexander -- the films evolved from still-photography projects Mark had undertaken; Twins and Prom were conceived as simultaneous still/film projects. Mark has also served as still photographer on Bell's two fictional films, American Heart (1992) and Hidden in America (1996).

Mark is a contributing photographer to The New Yorker magazine, and has published photo-essays and portraits in such publications as LIFE, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. Some of her long-term projects (such as Streetwise) began as assignments for periodicals, while segments of others have appeared in 

magazines and newspapers after she or completed initiated them. And her body of work, broadly described, engages with an assortment of sociocultural themes and issues. As a result, she often gets classified as a photojournalist or documentary photographer, and while there's some truth to that categorization it's also misleading.

We tend to think of such picture-makers as storytellers, tracing or retracing a chain of events, investigating and analyzing a set of circumstances, describing and contextualizing various activities, informing us as to how something came about, showing us how a person, or a group of people, tries to grapple with whatever life situation they face. But that's not Mark's inclination (though her account of the work of Mother Teresa and her Missions of Charity in Calcutta, India shows Mark as entirely capable of such an approach). Were she a movie director we'd describe her as concerned much less with plot than with character.

Fundamentally, Mark functions as a portraitist, fascinated by facial expression and body language. Most of her images take the form of environmental portraiture, in which she depicts her subjects in the contexts of their lives. For these series she works with small cameras, 35-mm. and 2-1/4" single-lens reflex. But several recent projects -- one involving an annual convention of twins and the other the once-yearly springtime U.S. rite of passage generically referred to as "prom night" (the dance party for high-school graduates) -- have involved a return to something akin to the 19th-century photo studio: a neutral cloth-draped set, artificially lit, into which her subjects step by prior appointment to present themselves to Mark and the imposing Polaroid 20x24 camera, which produces large one-of-a-kind instant positives.

The people into whose working and/or personal lives Mark introduces herself and her cameras are often in extremis, in some ways at high risk. Typically, they share a quality of exoticism, in that some aspect of their lives marginalizes them, places them outside the mainstream. As she said in 1987, "I'm just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence."

What those people who "haven't had the best breaks" share with the seemingly privileged denizens of the film world is that something inherent in their social status gives the average citizen unofficial, de facto permission to stare. The film directors and actors struggle with deadlines, budgets, the weight of fame and influence, the vagaries of creativity and myth-making, all under the relentless scrutiny of the media and the public, as if in a goldfish bowl. Though they may chafe at it, the condition of celebrity that makes their work possible (and rewards them handsomely for it) puts their lives under a microscope. If that attention represents a hardship, it's one they've chosen -- just as the prom-goers Mark considers in her most recent project, a set of planned and posed studio portraits (forthcoming as a book in 2012), have prepared themselves to don carefully selected costumes, step into the spotlight for one evening, and participate in a longstanding public ritual that celebrates their nominal transition from adolescence into adulthood. 

The mental patients, street kids, prostitutes and their clients, developmentally disabled children with their caregivers, traveling circus performers, and twins with whom Mark has spent time all live with the fact that their circumstances, their professions, or their physical selves set them apart from their fellow citizens. It has made them pariahs in some cases and oddities in others. Their differentness generally doesn't result from choice; chance, or fate, has thrust it upon them, and they adapt to it as best they can. But it guarantees that they'll get looked at, even scrutinized, treated not infrequently like specimens in a zoo. So Mark's empathetic portraits serve as a bridge between 

her subjects and her viewers, diminishing their otherness, connecting us to them by the simple expedient of enabling us to study them closely and, more often than not, to look into their eyes. 

Mark seems particularly drawn to the young -- specifically, those between the age of ten or so and their late teens. At some point in reviewing decades of her work one gets struck, inevitably, with the predominance of studies of people in that age group. This is less true in her film work, though she's photographed her share of actors in their early years, among them Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson, and Brooke Shields. But several of her major projects -- Streetwise (1988), A Cry for Help (1996), and Extraordinary Child (2007) -- have specifically concentrated on the vulnerability of the young. In most of the others, children and/or teenagers play a central role: Falkland Road (1981), Indian Circus (1993),Twins (2003). The underage performers in the Indian circuses seem happily adapted to their unusual lives, and the young twins in that more recent project have presumably adjusted to their status as pairs. But only the graduating high-schoolers in the prom-night suite represent approximately normal kids at a pivotal but stereotypical high point in their lives.

This doesn't mean that Mark treats those aged 10-20 as a "cause" of some sort, merely that she has found herself drawn repeatedly to this phase of life more than any other, in a wide assortment of its manifestations across cultures both eastern and western. Part of her ongoing inquiry concerns that decade of life as one during which adult personality and socialization skills get shaped; another aspect of it contemplates the ways in which cultures (and microcultures) either succeed in providing the support young peopleneed to thrive or else fail them during this crucial period.

Joseph Conrad, on whose short story "Heart of Darkness" Coppola based the film Apocalypse Now, wrote that "The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes and . . . reveal the substance of its truth. [I]f one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision . . . shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity . . . which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world." 

"Only connect," wrote E. M. Forster, in the same spirit. Palpable in Mark's work, that "clearness of sincerity" consistently generates the sense of solidarity and connection -- to each other, and to the world -- that these authors advocated. They saw this as necessary, above all, for the full actualization of our true humanity. If we consider our species as an organism, a body, we might say that they chose in their own ways to serve as synapses through which communication among that body's individual cells might pass. We can measure their achievement by the fact that their works, and their reasons for producing it, resonate today. Mary Ellen Mark shares those motives, and those premises. The reverberations of her images, singly and cumulatively, have only begun.


© Copyright 2011 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,