Mary Ellen Mark

With her strongly personal approach, she documents the lives of people on the edges of society -- from the prostitutes of Bombay to the street kids of Seattle to the cowboys of small-town Texas rodeos.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In 1965, at the outset of her career, what documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark wanted to do more than anything was get away: journey to distant countries, travel to unfamiliar places in America, explore and try to understand the lives of as many different kinds of people as she could. That she's put together a world-class body of work on just those initial terms is a testament to her fortitude and self-assurance, and also to her ability to connect, quickly and deeply, with her subjects.

Mark has continued to elevate her goals, to the point where her strikingly diverse photographic series -- of homeless families, runaway children, mentally ill patients, Indian prostitutes -- are all bound together by a generosity of vision. In its social aspect, her work has become synonymous with how important it is to acknowledge the humanity of those people on the edges of society, and often at the edges of their own lives.

Thirty-five years ago, Mark's aims were simple. "I wanted to travel from the beginning," she has said. "As a kid, I used to dream about airplanes, before I ever flew in one. I really knew when I started photographing I wanted it to be a way of knowing different cultures, not just in other countries but in this country, too, and I knew I wanted to be a voyeur."

Her career began on that note. After taking an M.A. at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, Mark was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to photograph in Turkey, in 1965, and she spent the next two years traveling there and in other countries, including Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain and England.

Back in the States in 1967, Mark moved to New York and began shooting in Central Park and Times Square and at various news-making events around town. For the next several years, she developed projects on the transvestite culture, pro- and anti-war demonstrations, the women's movement and even burlesque comedians and marriage brokers on 42nd Street. A certain direction in the work was becoming clear: a movement away from mainstream society and toward its more interesting, often troubled fringes. "I'm just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society," she explained in 1987. "What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence."

At the same time, Mark sought work in a completely different world of money and privilege -- shooting production stills on the sets of Hollywood films. She felt that the work was a combination of portraiture and reportage that suited her style, and it also paid the bills nicely. After working on Arthur Penn's movie "Alice's Restaurant," Mark got an assignment from Look magazine to shoot Federico Fellini filming "Satyricon" in Rome. This led directly to other movie assignments ("Carnal Knowledge," "Catch-22"), and her work began appearing regularly in Look and Life.

But the turning point in her movie-still work came in 1973 when she asked director Milos Forman, with whom she was working on "Taking Off," if she could also work on his upcoming picture, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The film, shot on location at the Oregon State Mental Hospital, had no budget for a still photographer, so Mark worked for expenses only. "I had always wanted to photograph in a mental hospital," she has said. "I've just always been interested in mental health, mental illness." As the filming proceeded, Mark established a relationship with the hospital's director, who introduced her to the women of the institution's maximum-security Ward 81.

Mark's photojournalism career has been built mostly around magazines. Her photographs and reportorial series have appeared in periodicals worldwide, from Life to Rolling Stone, from Paris Match to the New Yorker. But her first long-term, in-depth series, one that would become a landmark in the development of her empathetic but unsentimental style, didn't appear in a magazine at all.

In 1976, she returned to the Oregon hospital with writer Karen Folger Jacobs and lived for more than a month with the women of the ward. "Ward 81," a collection of photographs from that period, was published as a book in 1979. It was the first of her projects to portray, in depth, people whom she feels "haven't had the best breaks in society." But her approach was strongly personal, not political or scientific. "It was a project of my own, and I just wanted to do photographs that I believed in without having any rhyme or reason or theory, or having to spell out a sort of storytelling. I wanted to show their personalities -- that was the thing that drew me to them."

"Ward 81" is the first series that makes it clear Mark has a strong ability to gain people's trust. "I didn't propose a threat to them," she says. "I think figures of authority who were outside of the ward, like the nurses or the doctors, they were a threat because they were the ones who could punish. I was just someone there documenting their lives, so it was very different. Slowly, they got used to me."

The black-and-white pictures are straightforward and often stark, but, considering the overwhelmingly depressing context, they're startlingly comfortable. Several portraits of a patient named Mary Frances show her with her knees tucked tight under her chin, looking sidelong at the camera, but another catches her, perhaps playfully, peeking over the rim of her bathtub. A handful of women smoke in a common room, dancing forlornly to records at 1 in the afternoon. Another woman named Laurie is seen in the bath naked and also covered under the sudsy water, all except her head and her hair, laid out along the rim of the tub. It might be a glamour shot.

Mark tried to treat the women and their illnesses individually, seeking out what made each of them unique. "The women had very strong personalities," she's said. "Some of them were funny, some romantic, some social. You could label them just the way you might label your friends -- that's the comedian, this is the social one. The difference was that the feelings were so much more exaggerated. There's no bullshit; the emotions are pure."

In late 1978, Mark returned to India, which she had visited many times since the late '60s, to photograph the prostitutes of Falkland Road, in Bombay. The street is lined with four- and five-story houses, each with several madams and dozens of prostitutes, some as young as 11. Mark had begun the project on each of her previous visits, but always encountered strong resistance, in the form of verbal abuse and showers of garbage, mostly from the women who were relegated to the ground-level "cages," tiny rooms with metal bars.

This time, however, she gained the trust of some street prostitutes who didn't work for the madams, and of a small group of transvestite prostitutes who quickly took to the idea of being photographed. With this acceptance, and her determination to live with these people and finish her work, the hostility ended; the women were curious, and two madams asked her to stay with them for days and weeks at a time.

"I made friends with many of the women," Mark says. "They were very protective of me. As a matter of fact, once there was a police raid and they hid me under one of the beds. They were protective of me around the customers and people that might be dangerous. And they were genuine friends. I would work all afternoon, then I'd go have dinner in the little restaurants on the street, and I could leave my cameras, bag, everything there with the women and nothing would ever be taken or touched. I trusted them totally."

Mark's color photographs of Falkland Road are different in many ways from "Ward 81." Showing both the interiors of the brothels and the squalid atmosphere of the street, they are often less focused on personality and more concerned with culture and type. And the colors themselves - the greens and purples and blues and reds of the peeling paint and beautiful woven clothing - can serve to decentralize a picture.

"The difficulty with color," Mark has noted, "is to go beyond the fact that it's color - to have it be not just a colorful picture but really be a picture about something. It's difficult. So often color gets caught up in color, and it becomes merely decorative."

"Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay" was published in 1981, but Mark returned to India in January 1980, a year after she left Bombay, when she finally got the chance to photograph Mother Teresa and the poor she cared for at the Missions of Charity in Calcutta. Because she was on assignment for Life, Mark's first pictures appeared in July 1980, as "Teresa of the Slums: A Saintly Nun Embraces India's Poor." But her project wasn't complete. So she returned to Calcutta a year later to stay for two months.

The pictures made at Nirmal Hriday, the Home for the Dying; Nirmala Kennedy Center, a home for retarded and homeless women; Shanti Nagar (Peace) Village, a leprosy hospital; and other centers combine the approaches Mark took at the mental hospital and at the brothels: "It was an extraordinary experience," Mark says about this time in India. "It was done in the early '80s, when access was easier, especially to institutions. I was given complete access to all the different mission houses, and I knew the people, which I think is very important. Especially in a place like the Home for the Dying, where people are really ill and some of them die, you go back day after day, so when someone dies it's someone that you knew. You're not just running in and taking someone's picture who's in a bad situation."

Mark used black and white here, and her compositions, while not usually straight portraits, don't seem as random as at Falkland Road. The reduction to shades of gray immediately intensifies the experience: We know the walls and robes are white and there are accents of blue, and the light coming through the windows and open doorways is probably warm, but all that information is stripped away, and we're forced to focus on the severity of the metal cots, the thinness of arms and legs, the large, crying eyes of a girl who wants only to get out, the solitude of patients with leprosy. With the Missions of Charity series, Mark's style grew in clarity and power.

In the '80s, her singular point of view was put to work on innumerable magazine assignments, which led to two more significant personal projects. In April 1983, Mark and reporter Cheryl McCall traveled to Seattle to document the lives of street kids for Life magazine -- more than a dozen very young prostitutes, pimps and hustlers. The story ran in July 1983 as "Streets of the Lost: Runaway Kids Eke Out a Mean Life in Seattle."

When the magazine assignment was completed, Mark and McCall, together with Mark's husband, Martin Bell, a filmmaker, raised money to go back to Seattle in late August to film the various stories of the kids they had befriended. During that time, Mark continued to take her own still photographs. This group of pictures, published in 1988 as "Streetwise" (also the name of the film), is once again different in important ways from Mark's earlier work. Because she focused closely on about a half-dozen kids, the photographs are much more narrative and emotionally intense.

The strongest images are those of a 14-year-old named Erin Blackwell, or "Tiny," who was just beginning to turn tricks, or as she and her friends called them, "dates." Tiny is seen on the street, ready for work, looking much older than 14, and then at home in regular kid clothes, looking no more than 12. She is the most photogenic of all the teens, but that's not the only reason her pictures are so compelling.

Mark's portraits of Tiny are extraordinarily soulful; she catches the girl, who had become her friend, in what seem like moments of deep introspection, severe doubt, fear or pain. Tiny's countenance is generally unsmiling, like all the kids', but especially in the pictures with her mother, Pat, we see beyond her mask.

The most famous image of Tiny, one of the last that Mark took in that series, served as the cover picture for the book. Tiny is dressed in a smart sleeveless black dress, black gloves, earrings and a black pillbox hat with a mesh veil extending almost to her mouth. It's her Halloween costume for 1983 -- she's going as a French whore. Tiny's arms are crossed tightly, defensively, and her beautiful, sad face, with its eternally downturned mouth, doesn't emit happiness, or, for that matter, any light at all.

"Tiny is somebody I care about and I've known for many years," Mark says. "It's a very different experience knowing someone and photographing their lives than it is when you just see someone [as a friend] because it's much more of an intense involvement," she says. "When you're always with them it becomes intense -- you're photographing them and watching them and they're allowing you to do this, which is a great gift that they give you."

There are echoes of Tiny and the other kids of Seattle in Mark's late-'80s series on the Damm family of Los Angeles. On another assignment for Life, Mark photographed the family for a week, living in their car and at a homeless shelter in North Hollywood. Dean and Linda Damm said they were determined to make better lives for themselves and for Linda's children, Crissy and Jesse, who were 6 and 5 years old. The pictures showed an extremely hard existence that was faintly hopeful. After the piece ran, as the family set up in their own apartment, they also received help from concerned readers.

But the new solidity lasted only four months; everything the Damms had was sold for drugs. Seven years later Mark visited the family again, after getting a call from them. There were two new children, Ashley, 6, and Summer, 4, and the family was living on an abandoned pig ranch in the desert north of Los Angeles. The parents have had parenting classes, attended Narcotics Anonymous and been arrested for assaulting each other. In the second Life series on the Damms, Mark's empathetic vision of the family is nevertheless harder-edged than before, and carries virtually no hint of hope.

(Mark has kept in touch with Linda Damm, whose life has "taken a turn for the better," she says. "She's with a different man who's much more constructive and a positive influence in her life. She's not doing drugs anymore, and she's in a good place.")

In the '90s, Mark has sharpened her eye for portraiture and at the same time found ways to expand her point of view and reveal a unique sense of humor. She still focuses on people who could be considered outside mainstream society, and they're still usually part of groups or communities that share experiences, rituals, love and pain. But the preponderance of destitution and life on the edge has given way to pictures of more or less stable people enduring the vagaries of everyday life.

One magazine assignment, for instance, brought Mark to the ballroom-dancing communities of Miami and Boca Raton, where she captured senior citizens shimmying and dipping for her camera without compunction. Across the country, she examined the pageantry of the small-town rodeos of Texas. The peacock-strutting double portrait of two mini-cowboys, Craig Scarmardo and Cheyloh Mather, is heartbreaking in the way it seems to consign these boys to a life of bitter machismo. It's one of the most penetrating pictures in Mark's oeuvre. (It's on the cover of her new retrospective book, "American Odyssey," which accompanies an exhibition opening in May at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

In another large-scale project, Mark focused on the traveling circuses of India. In gently startling images, she paints a surreal portrait of the lives of the members of 18 different circuses -- the child contortionists (or "plastic ladies") and acrobats; the dwarf clowns; and the trained and clothed bears, dogs, elephants and chimps. The atmosphere differs from that in Mark's other work. Writing in the preface to "Indian Circus" (1993), she says, "photographing the Indian circus was one of the most beautiful, joyous, and special times of my career. I was allowed to document a magic fantasy that was, at the same time, all so real. It was full of ironies, often humorous and sometimes sad, beautiful and ugly, loving and at times cruel, but always human. The Indian circus is a metaphor for everything that has always fascinated me visually."

It's not as emotionally intense as "Ward 81," and it's not as full of pathos as the "Missions of Charity" series, but in "Indian Circus," Mark hit on a perfect vehicle for the full expression of her art: In equal measures, it offers clear-eyed reporting, humor, eloquent portraiture and compassion -- qualities not readily found in most photojournalism but, thanks in large part to Mark's example, increasingly apparent in good documentary photography.

With her richness and insight, Mark has been considered by many to be a fine-art photographer. But she dismisses that idea: "I'm a documentary photographer. That's what I've always wanted to be; that's where my heart and soul is."

By Andrew Long

Andrew Long is a senior editor at Departures magazine, and writes frequently about photography.

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