(This interview was originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in July 2005)
Over a 42-year career as a documentary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark is renowned for her gorgeous, brooding black-and-white photographs, ranging from street kids in Seattle in the 1980s to Indian circus performers, to Italian director Frederico Fellini shooting with his film crew. Mark is among the small pantheon of the most important and influential American photographers working today.
Her book, “Exposure: The Iconic Photographs” (Phaidon, $80), is a breathtaking retrospective of four decades of Mark’s work. Using 134 images, Mark has distilled the most powerful photographs of her career, from the color images of the child prostitutes of Falkland Road in Bombay, India to a photo series on the Damm family, living on the margins of society. Ignoring conventional chronology, Mark and Phaidon have created a swirling, magnetic book, going from Mark’s portrait of the Lone Ranger to elderly retired people living the high life in the Miami Beach of 1979. From her photographs of children in a New York City shelter to a man dying in a Calcutta hospice, Mark always directs a compassionate and unflinching eye on the world.
Mark, 65, was born in Philadelphia and educated at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of numerous books on photography, including “Twins,” “Falkland Road” and “Streetwise,” which was also an award-winning documentary by Mark’s husband, the filmmaker Martin Bell. Mark lives in Manhattan, and spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley from her nearby studio.
Q. How did you put this book together?
A. I can tell you how this book was put together. My editor Mary Shanahan, (my husband) Martin and I worked on it over the course of a year to pick the pictures. We picked carefully. I see so many photo books where some of the pictures are great and others are weak. I wanted every picture in the book to be strong, where you turn the page and there is another strong image. I went through thousands of photographs to get down to 134 images.
I wanted to weave (photos of the Indian and Mexican) circuses through the book. I didn’t want the book to always be separated into picture stories. It was really what worked together, what flowed from page to page. And because there was some color, we had to figure out where to put the color.
Q. Some of your circus shots are formal and posed, others are candid. What do you look when you take each photograph?
A. Every time I take a picture, it is something different. You think about something, then you see it, then something different happens. I’m looking for some kind of irony in photographs, perfection and irony. Perfection is very important to me. I kind of envy people who shoot haphazardly. I’m always looking very thoroughly and precisely at one thing. I care a lot about the graphics in the frame, the design of the frame. A great picture is many things. First of all, it is content. Without content, you don’t have a great picture. Then there is also your technique and lighting, whether it is natural or you are making the lighting. When you think of the great photographers like Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank or Helen Levitt, their images are perfect, graphically perfect. What they want to say works, the light works.
Q. You put together several short series, like your two decades of work with Tiny, a former Seattle child prostitute, and gritty views of the impoverished Damm family in California. Why?
A. Certain images needed to go together to make sense. With the Falkland Road shots, it was one area, one place and they needed to be together. It was all about putting the photos up on the bulletin board and looking at them day after day. With Tiny,` she sees the photography as work. She knows when she has to concentrate.
Q. Have you ever felt the need to intervene with your subjects?
A. With the Damm family, when I took the photo of the stepfather and daughter in bed, it was the aftermath of sexual abuse. I thought I had to take the photo. The level of abuse in that family was so severe. This picture translated because of the look on her face. I went to the social worker. I was told that I was being ridiculous and the girl denied any abuse. So you can give advice, but you can’t start ruling people’s lives. Every time Tiny got pregnant, I’d have a big fight with her.
Q. In an interview 20 years ago, you told the story of being unable to photograph the dead body of young foreign woman in India in 1969. Do you regret not taking the photograph?
A. I remember that. I didn’t photograph her. Do I regret it? Maybe, but I couldn’t do it. The woman was probably about my age. I felt it would be an invasion, but yet I was able to take recent pictures in a Mexican morgue.
I am very careful. When you do that kind of work, something goes off in your head and says, “No, don’t go there,” or “Yes, you can go there.” I’ve been careful not to offend anyone. When I photographed in Ward 81 (at an Oregon psychiatric hospital), that taught me a lot about how far I could go. Those women were mentally ill and they don’t have the filters that we have. If they don’t want something, they say, “Get away.” If I’d hurt someone with one of my photos, I’d regret it, no matter how great the photograph.
Q. How do you describe the nature of the documentary work you do?
A. I think of myself and other documentary photographers as documenting reality. So much of what we see in magazines is conceptual. It is surface, all art directed and styled. With Philip Jones Griffiths, Donna Ferrato, Giles Peres and myself, we are photographers of reality. I think of us as interpreting the realities we have seen in our lifetime. It is similar to the work of a nonfiction writer.
Q. What is the state of documentary photography today?
A. Documentary photography doesn’t exist anymore in magazines. There's war photography, but war photography is a different mindset than going to photograph people in a small town. Ordinary documentary photography doesn’t have to deal with sensational issues. It’s gone and that is very sad. The place for really great photographers like Gene Richards, where is that? It’s gone. I mourn this as a photographer. I cry about it, I do. Every morning, I walk around Washington Square Park several times and things rattle around in my mind. When I think about what has happened to this business, I cry. It has changed because advertising has become totally controlling. It is sad, because everybody is fed a certain kind of surface information. We don’t get the raw material we need. There is a generation of photographers that are still shooting and we don’t get to see their work.