It was just a few days after Christmas when one of the worlds most revered photographers, Mary Ellen Mark asked me to her studio. The invitation gave me feeling that I had just received one last incredible gift. The loft itself had a childlike appeal with whimsical toys that had been collected through the years and other irreplaceable memorabilia decorating the space. The constant whir of the large fan drying hand printed images filled the air, reminding me of years past when being in a darkroom was as large a part of photography as being behind the lens itself. As she approached me, I was taken by her petite stature and soft spoken nature, her long signature braids framing a face that despite the vast life it had witnessed belied her 73 years. It struck me that I was in the presence of an artist whose sense of wonderment had never left her.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You started as a painter…we have this in common actually. After four years as a frustrated painter at Cooper Union I picked up a camera to do an essay on my Mother, who suffered from clinical depression, and I never looked back. At that time she hadn’t left the house for a few years and I had not seen her … her willingness to let me in was astounding …. having experienced that, that ability to fully realize empathy through the artistic medium of film was completely transformative. What was the pivotal moment for you, as a painter with a camera, that made you fall in love with photography?
MARY ELLEN MARK: I studied painting and art history at Penn. I got a masters degree at Penn and that’s when I became interested in photography. The first moment that I went outside on the street with a camera, and I realized the contact that it gave me with people, I was astounded by that. I realized that the world could be so open to me. It wasn’t one particular moment; I just realized that’s what I wanted my future to be.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Where were you shooting at that time?
MARY ELLEN MARK: It was on the street in Philadelphia. The fact that this opened the door to this connection with humanity was amazing. It changed my life forever.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How we see the world as individuals is really what comes out in our photos, it starts when we are very young..
MARY ELLEN MARK: Yes it does. What I am, and always have been interested in, is people and their lives but not in an ethnographic way…in a much more personal way. A more humanistic way. And I was very lucky because when I graduated from Penn, I came to New York and magazines were still publishing that kind of work. So I never really thought of it as commercial work. It felt like personal work for me and I could do a ton of research and find all kinds of stories that would allow me to do my own pictures. I was never a great photo essayist; I was always just good at taking pictures. I was looking for individual images, hopefully iconic, and then I slowly saw that change…it started slowly in the ‘70s. Gradually, the magazines changed until now — that world of documenting humanity. Well, what I mean is, still exhibits in the sense that if you want to photograph a war or other things in a catastrophic genre, but it doesn’t really exist any other way. It can exist as a portraitist if the photographer allows it. Most publications won’t accept film now. They want their things immediately. I’m not against shooting digital for a commercial job but not for my own personal work.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was your childhood like?
MARY ELLEN MARK: It was very painful. I didn’t have a childhood. Lonely. What was always important for me was independence and I guess I chose a profession that gave me total independence.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I understand that completely. I grew up in a very challenging atmosphere so my goal was to leave as soon as possible and create something different outside of that. Coming from that place does develop your awareness of life in a different way…
MARY ELLEN MARK: I’ve always felt so isolated as a person. I’ve never been a group joiner.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That empathetic connection, whether conscious or not, in my opinion, is the key factor to making a great image. Your photos are food for the soul in such a hungry world of virtual representation and shallow commentary. How do you decide in terms of historical timing — where or what to shoot next?
MARY ELLEN MARK: Well, empathy towards anything that you’re looking at, whether it’s a beautiful landscape or a person. You have to have empathy even for the landscape. I’m not a landscape photographer, but I admire people who are.
I think the next project, if you’re open, it just presents itself to you. It’s usually something you’re interested in. Like I’ve always been interested in going back to places that I’ve worked before because you have a certain access that you’ve established with people. We did a Kickstarter and based it on going back and photographing a girl we photographed 30 years ago, “Tiny.” It’s fascinating. She’s changed, she’s had 10 children, her life is fading. But I’ve always been interested in that. I’ve also always been interested in the relationship between people and animals.
Great photography is about looking at something that’s so universal but just trying to look at it in your own way.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You often mention the demise of publishing today in terms of the lack of photo essays…it has been replaced by the public fascination of escapism through celebrity and reality
shows. Artists and young photographers today don’t have the same reference library to draw from in terms of current representation.
CHRISTINA LESSA: When I was growing up, my family’s old copies of Life and National Geographic were a portal to other worlds — other peoples lives that were so raw and telling on the most human level. This is the quality in your work that is so fantastically relatable. From your work as a teacher, how do you think today’s emerging photographers experience and product differ from this slick and shallow representation of the life that we live in the 21st century?
MARY ELLEN MARK: I think a lot of content is gone from photography now. There’s always been a love for celebrities, but it’s even more now. One of the things is that it’s not about being analog or digital — that’s not the issue. I have students that are taking fantastic pictures digitally. I grew up in the sense that photography is about capturing something in your camera. Not changing something. Today, it’s not the photographer that’s the artist, but the retoucher as the artist. They alter it. So the image is only a step in the process. I don’t let my students do that. They have to tell how me what they saw. That is pretty much what documentary photography is. It’s documenting what you see. But what we see in magazines is so altered that it’s an illustration. It’s an illusion. It’s not even close to a photograph anymore. It’s not just the retouching, making someone who is 60 look 40. Everything has changed. No one looks real. Even things about lighting are not authentic anymore, because you can just do it in post-production. Reality is gone. Reality is being completely erased.
This is something that makes sense in fashion photography because fashion is already a fantasy. You have the most unique looking women in the world wearing beautiful clothes — that’s fine, but they change it so much. The fantasy becomes cold because it’s no longer human, it’s total fiction.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What about publishing? Are you ever offered the types of commercial jobs that appeal to your sensibility anymore?
MARY ELLEN MARK: Magazines have gotten much more conservative. When I shot the street kids in Seattle for Life, there was a picture of a boy shooting up a girl, probably with MDA. People were shocked by that photograph. But 15 years ago, I did an essay for Look that was nothing but pictures of kids shooting up. It would be very difficult to publish an essay like that now. People accepted these realities then; now they don’t. Look at how times have changed!
Of course, it’s obvious why you can’t do that anymore. The magazines are controlled by advertising. And advertisers aren’t happy with it. They don’t want to see a picture of a dirty person. That doesn’t go along with selling perfume. Advertisers control beauty. Everything has become so uniformed and
surreal and not in an inserting way, but in a weird way. It’s hyper-reality in a boring way.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Where do you see documentary work going for the next generations of image makers?
MARY ELLEN MARK: Well it’s got to be an individual effort. They’re not going to get financial backing from a magazine like I did. That’s not gonna happen anymore. They’re going to apply for grants, the few grants that exist. Or they can do other work and pay for it with other work. They can become a commercial photographer and pay with it for that. But I think it’s really important to pursue what you have to do. If you want to be proud of your work, you have to do what is your own work. Not just commercial work because then what do you have? You have a lot of work for someone else.
CHRISTINA LESSA: As a combatant to our world of hyper-reality and the glut of information that filters through our lives everyday, FLATT exists to support the creatives and those that patron them. At FLATT we believe that the creative process, and all arts derived from it, are our last great tools of change and progress. Authentic arts ( and science) initiatives are the most valuable investments that we can make. Do you have an opinion on arts and philanthropy and the current state of not only survival of the artist, but also the value of arts on society?
MARY ELLEN MARK: Well, as far as arts and philanthropy, I think any way an artist can get a meal…can get support for doing work is wonderful. I believe in that. It’s so difficult now. Especially as a photographer. I can speak of it in terms of photography because that’s what I do. It is so difficult in documentary work.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I think raw, meaningful documentary work is coming back.
MARY ELLEN MARK: Yeah. It’s not as conceptual. It is art, though. Everything that is powerful and makes me feel is art. If anyone says I’m an artist because I shoot documentary, that’s bullshit. If it’s powerful, it’s art.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I guess what I’m saying is that I feel gritty rawness of what art can be is actual gaining in popularity and becoming more important because the juxtaposition of hyper-reality. I think people want it. What were some of your most interesting experiences with your work?
MARY ELLEN MARK: Every experience has meant a lot to me, and I miss the fact that I used to be able to go off on long adventures. That hasn’t happened recently. But working with the circus was amazing.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That was in India?
MARY ELLEN MARK: Yes. I did also work in the circus in Mexico and also in Vietnam, but India was the long experience.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What made it so captivating?
MARY ELLEN MARK: India is truly another world: incredible, beautiful, crazy, emotional, horrible, amazing…everything you can think of and the circus is such a fantasy and something we all understand. And you can imagine how a country like India can translate to circus. So that was a great trip.
At one point after starting to work on a film with my husband and John Irving, it switched to Mexico. I had been working on this project there for years. Then, it was back to India. We went to this circus called the Great Royal circus and the lion trainer was a very macho guy. He invited. Martin and me into the lion cage and that was memorable because the trainer was so proud that he got all excited having us there.
Martin had a video camera and the trainer got so excited that he punched Tex, his lion, to show off for us…he punched him right in the nose. Tex’s feelings were so hurt that he jumped off his big stool and started to circle all of us in the cage, running and panting and growling, and you become powerless and terrified…until they managed to open the door !
We had many experiences like that in India. Most of my best memories are from there — such amazing opportunities and experiences. I also love Mexico and have taught there for 20 years, but most of the amazing opportunities have been in India working with the prostitutes, the circus and all of the people. I am humbled by and grateful for all of those experiences as a photographer and an artist. My greatest advice to any young artist would be, photograph the world as it is. There is nothing more interesting than reality.