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Mary Ellen Mark (1940 – 2015 )

by Caroline Gaudriault

An angel passed ...

People ascribe all kinds of heritage to Mary Ellen Mark, who wears her coal black hair in two long braids down her back, but she prefers to keep them wondering. Faces are supposed to by mysterious, after all. Hers brims with lived lived, friendships sealed, and countries cherished. Mary Ellen has immersed herself in other people’s lives, linked her destiny with theirs. She has loved every one of their stories and been passionate about every one of her subjects. But it was always their faces she was seeking.

© Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark   

Even today, in the rainy November off-season, on a deserted beach beside a murky sea at New York’s Coney Island, she is looking for faces. The fairground entertainers have gone away. Behind the deserted roller coaster is a headless statue of King Kong. Along the midway, the concessions and games booths have been shuttered and padlocked since summer. The ice cream shops are frozen with boredom as they wait for the return of the warm weather. Only the occasional hooded figure can be seen lurking at the fringes of this abandoned scene. What is Mary Ellen thinking? Does she see the ghosts of people she has photographed there? Contemplating the leftovers of summertime games and childlike fun, she describes the characters who have never left her side, bringing to life the circus people, the street performers, the rodeo cowboys.

She loves the fragility of show folk. She likes to stay with a circus for well over a month, at least six weeks in fact, visiting every day. She starts taking pictures the moment she arrives, confronting black looks, averted gazes, turned backs. Never accepted straight away, she comes back a second time, then a third. If necessary, she says nothing, advancing in slow steps. “At first, people are wary of me,” she says. “But I photograph them immediately, even before we’ve talked to each other. I want to be frank with them, to let them know why I’m there.” It’s more honest, she thinks. And then the meeting takes place, the faces change, broadening into smiles. Her subjects relax. “When you get to know people, they are more giving. The pictures you take become more intimate. They become different people.” Fascinated by the fixed moment in time, she loves to linger over old portraits, shifting from one photo to the next, one person to another: “The subjects are no longer attached to the image or themselves they projected before. It’s as if they had become someone else.”
The characters she follows are imperfect, wavering, ready to topple over at any time. She doesn’t select them; she is instinctively drawn to them. Pinky, the six year old Indian acrobat, was blessed with a rare talent. But she was also cursed by fate. Mary Ellen loved that fragile, dignified little girl. She admired the dignity she displayed in her protectiveness to her little brother when their father died. Her dignity in coping with the subsequent death of their mother. Her dignity when her brother died too. The photographer followed every stage of the girl’s life, chronicling it with a blend of artistic complicity and a compassionate friendship.

“I’ve always sided with the vulnerable”

She seeks out extreme individuality, something deeply human yet almost imperceptible, the point of light in the deepest shadows. She looks for the life that is worth living. Her people are struggling with their backgrounds, their poverty, their sickness, their difference, but they share a belief in the hands they’ve been dealt. They may be forgotten, accursed, or infirm, but they will turn their tragic destinies into something meaningful. Mary Ellen reveals what, in their harsh, unremitting lives, makes them cling so tightly to life. She has drawn immensely powerful images from her love for them and from the intense moments they have shared. But when she steps back to consider her work, she puts aside the bonds of intimacy, emotion and anecdote. She makes a sharp distinction between great photography and a mere record of highlights in people’s lives. “A great photograph needs no explanation; it functions by suggestion. There is no need to be explicit.”

Her approach to the world is intimately linked to her approach to people. Mary Ellen’s work supersedes portraiture to become documentary. She records the destinies of her subjects in the form of photographic series: travelers, street kids, twins, the homeless, the mentally ill, prostitutes, shelters for troubled adolescents. She develops themes based on places, on social phenomena. She shows, but does not expound. She takes photographs, but does not investigate. She takes a stand. She needs to love what she is photographing. An advocate, not a journalist. She is on the side of people like the women in Ward 81, locked away in a state mental institution because they are dangerous to themselves and to others. Mary Ellen spent several weeks in Oregon with these forgotten, traumatized people, these prisoners of their own instability. She photographed their contortions, their listless eyes, the pain they fight to shed, their suffering flesh. She photographed them to record those faces that nobody sees, to bring life these women who are somehow already dead. She also photographed disabled children in Iceland, portraying their difference and the world they had invented for themselves in her book Extraordinary Child. She is the photographer of a submerged world. She is the photographer of a legitimate happiness to which everyone has a right.

Mary Ellen has a calling. She has always been on a mission. But the media like feel good stories for ordinary people while Mary Ellen shows the happiness of the unhappy. Nevertheless, she perseveres out of personal compulsion, exhibiting and publishing her own photographs. “I belong to a bygone era,” she says, “when magazines sent you out to do a thorough report. It was a more traditional kind of photography reflecting a world that didn’t want images of it to be perfect. We don’t look at the truth anymore; instead, we look at whatever reassures us.” Mary Ellen considers herself a survivor from those times.
What interests her most is authenticity. Her portraits are realistic, touching. But she is never overtly sentimental. “It is important for me to be honest. The men, women and children I photograph are straightforward with me. I have to respect them for what they are. They’re fragile, delicate people, why would I want to sentimentalize them? I’m not out to make people cry. What I look for is compassion, not pity.” Mary Ellen doesn’t sentimentalize, but she doesn’t filter reality either. She captures the ambivalence of human emotions, the humor and distress, the joy and the harshness, the sweetness and the pain, the beauty and the ugliness. She avoids lyricism because it leads to dishonesty. She accepts her subjects as they are, in all the slowness of passing time, to the very edge of boredom. Her portraits are as true as the stigmata-like lines on her subjects’ faces. They reveal their age, their wounds. “The people I photograph are willing to be shown as they are. They are all aware that pictures can be made to look more flattering. If you’re going to be immortalized, it’s tempting to show yourself at your best, at the peak of your beauty. But who decides what beauty is?” But Mary Ellen’s subjects are undeniably beautiful in their laughter, in their pain.

It is this sometimes unseen beauty that has touched the photographer. We are touched by that which resembles us. Does she recognize herself in them? “In a portrait, you always leave a part of yourself behind. It’s a personal encounter between yourself and the other person. I forget myself in my photographs; they’re a combination of what I bring to them and the contribution of the subject.” That’s her secret. No judgment, no sociology. Just a life close to her own.

Caroline Gaudriault

Encounter in Coney Island, November 2007

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