Mary Ellen Mark has been working for over 30 years pursuing her passion for photography. While some photographers lose their edge as years go by, in Mark’s case there has been no slackening either in the imagery or in the pursuit of the subjects with which she becomes obsessed. She is rightfully convinced that she has something to say, to show in photography. Most people coming into contact with the power of her work agree.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of working with her on the book and show Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, for the George Eastman House. My experience of her, then, goes well beyond a recent interview. I will begin with what may seem to be the middle or end point of the picture-taking process.
Mary Ellen Mark is a great editor of her own photographs. This is emblematic of her entire method of work.
She demands clarity of issue, excellence of technique, and the ability of any image to stand alone. To elaborate, while editing she abstracts herself from the circumstances of taking the photograph. Mark is not a prisoner of nostalgic memory such as, "this is the woman who fed me when I was hungry in Mexico," "this was a good/bad day for me," or "the man in the hat had survived many tragedies," and so forth. The image itself, therefore, must prove its own reason for existing that will be meaningful, in some way, for the viewer.
Her concentration while making a photograph is well-known. That same intensity is present at the editing table.
Mark’s subject is people. Many of whom, she has gotten to know in intimate detail. Her knowledge guides the story but does not interfere with her demand for the strongest photograph.
As she once observed, "I think you reveal yourself by what you choose to photograph, but I prefer photographs that tell more about the subject. There's nothing much interesting about me; what’s interesting is the person I'm photographing, and that’s what I try to show….”
And again, “What’s interesting is letting the people tell you about themselves in the picture.”
Photography is an interpretation - a personal description of the world. Understanding this, great photographers find their own way of rendering a scene, a truth.
Mark works intensely to find her subject and the right moment. Her passion for the meaningful single image, whether part of a longer project or not, is revealed quickly by putting photographs from different essays side by side. Her core of concern and strength of vision creates a broader context. One sees that her subjects are people, no matter where. Both the respect and the edginess persist: the ultimate story is much more profound.
At one point in Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years she speaks of her need to photograph, and illustrates the one thing she always looks for by telling the story of Suman. An acrobat in the Indian circus, Suman “walks upside down 80 feet up in the air…by slipping her feet through successive hoops and uses no net. I thought, she really is an adrenaline addict. I mean, she does this three times a day, every day, and she could die. But she doesn’t think she has to do it. My photography isn’t dangerous like that, but I guess I just do it because I have to. It’s hard to say why.
I like to be in a situation where I can define some sort of absolute feeling.” The reproductions that appear here courtesy of Mary Ellen Mark will demonstrate the core connections of her photographs.
All images © Mary Ellen Mark