Remembering Mary Ellen Mark, a Legendary Documentarian and Mentor to Generations of Photographers
In December, months before her death, I talked to the photographer about what makes a good photo and her teaching process.
Mary Ellen Mark, one of the greatest photographers of humans who will ever live, passed away this Monday night at the age of 75. She leaves behind a body of work that sings truths about the humor, horror, and joy of being alive. She was a champion of social documentary photography, never shying away from difficult subject matter—from prostitution to mental illness to the rituals of prom. And not for nothing, she was one of few women in that near-extinct male-dominated profession. This forced Mark to become strong and opinionated in her views of the medium, and she remained compassionate towards her subjects, often maintaining relationships with them long after her work was finished.
This winter, I interviewed Mark about her role as a mentor to younger artists. Although never a full-time teacher, she was incredibly available and open and warm to emerging photographers, especially those interested in social documentary work. I first met her in 2009, when I was a photography student at the Rhode Island School of Design and my class went on a visit to her magical Greene Street studio. My friend Rachel Stern scored an internship with her the following summer, and I would drop by sometimes. Mary Ellen was almost superhumanly supportive of us—she invited Rachel and me to her photography workshops to give presentations of our work as "guest artists" although we were unpolished college sophomores.
It may be difficult to believe that such an icon could be so accessible, but my experience is far from uncommon. Ask any young photographer in New York who has documentary aspirations, and if they haven't met Mary Ellen in person, they will extoll the virtues of her photography and tell you about their friend who was her intern, or ask if you've been to her famous Christmas party for dogs.
This last December, I met Mary Ellen at her studio to interview her, especially about her impact on younger generations. We looked through books she had published of work by her students, and she excitedly pointed out favorite pictures. I had intended to schedule a second conversation under the guise of needing more information, but secretly it was just another excuse to see Mary Ellen. Sadly, that second interview will never happen, but I'm glad I get to share the first.
VICE: I want to talk to you about teaching.
Mary Ellen Mark: Yeah, I teach. I teach workshops. I've never taught full-time in a photography school or university. I've been asked to, but I wanted to retain my freedom. Taking pictures has always been the most important thing for me. I teach [a workshop] in Mexico. I've taught in Oaxaca for 20 years. And I teach in Reykjavik in Iceland, and at ICP [the International Center for Photography] sometimes.
What kind of things do you teach in your workshops? I remember that you tell your students to put black tape over the screens of their digital cameras.
I ask them to tape over the back of the camera, first of all because I think they should learn how to use light. Also because you're never sure whether you have a picture until you print it. Often people shoot tons without thinking, then look in the back of the camera and think they have the image, and they don't. I'd rather my students come back to the hotel where they're staying, or their home, and then look, the same way you'd look at a contact sheet. And I basically teach by editing. Every day they bring to me what they shot the day before, and I edit their work.
I'm still shooting analog, just because I love film, and I have the best most incredible silver print maker in the world, Chuck Kelton. So I don't want to change at this point. I have a digital, but don't really use it. I think it's such a different thought process. And I want to feel that I have my negatives. I want to feel that they exist.
Do your students learn from each other as well?
They definitely learn from each other. I have a rule, though: They're not allowed to show each other what they're working on until the final critique. They're not allowed to compare work. Because I hate that kind of competitive edge. Most photographers have it.
Well sure, I'm sure I have it, I'm a photographer.
What do you look for in a photograph?
First content. But then I'm looking for frame and design. You can have amazing content, but if it's a busy, terrible frame, it won't work.
I remember you talking about the "odd frame."
Sometimes there's an eccentric frame, but it works perfectly. Your first thought when you pick up a camera, especially a square-format camera, is to frame everything in the middle. But I'm looking for the exception to that. Making a powerful photo, but using the edges—using all of the elements in the picture.
But first is content. The picture has to be about something.
What can give a picture content?
It's impossible to say. I think all the pictures I have on the wall here have content for different reasons [ Points to framed black-and-white prints on the studio wall by Graciela Iturbide, Arnold Newman, and Sally Mann. ]
There's content in them. It triggers your emotions.
It's impossible to say what makes a picture have that effect.
It's impossible to say because it could be a picture of a flower that triggers your emotions. It could be a picture of a tree or a person. War pictures—of course they have content because you see the horrors of war. But that doesn't make them easier to take. It's easy to say an event is content in a photograph, but it's not. It can be an Emmet Gowin photograph of a child with her arms crossed.
How do you teach that?
You have to teach them how to observe. And how to use this machine that we call a camera. To translate what their mind thinks and sees. Ask them why they took the picture, and just see how it all evolves. When you teach, each person is different, and you have to encourage them to be their best. Not to be like you.
I've very seldom had this happen, but there are some people who will never understand. They just don't have a visual sensibility.
Luckily, I've had great photo editors.
You have learned from having people edit your work?
I have. I've learned from teaching how to edit peoples' work. Often I'll ask my husband [filmmaker Martin Bell]. He's a great editor, and he's very direct and honest with me. if it's the right moment, or an off moment, or it doesn't work.
Martin is your greatest editor.
He's tough, but you have to be tough. I think you have to be honest.
Do pictures your students make ever remind you of your own work?
Sometimes, but I don't want them to. I want it to be their work.
Because I Imagine a lot of people go to the workshops thinking, I want to photograph like Mary Ellen Mark, right?
I think they come because they want to learn how to photograph people. I've had less landscape photographers in my classes.
A good picture to you has a person in it?
I think a good picture could not have a person. I think landscape photography is incredible. But you really have to know what you're doing and how you're doing it to be a great landscape photographer. I don't. I don't know how to do it, so I'd probably be not a good landscape photographer.
Who were you teachers? You went to the Annenberg School right?
Yes. There was a magazine man who was really lovely and encouraging to me named Louis Glessma who used to be the editor at Holiday. He was very encouraging. I think you have to be encouraging and honest. Some people are just mean, and I hate that.
Do you think taking pictures more often makes you a better photographer?
When you use a camera, it's almost like using a musical instrument—you have to be in practice.
Why do you think it's important to support younger artists?
Because it's tough! It's a tough world. So it's really important to help young people. I don't care if it's male or female. It is a bit harder being a woman. More than a bit. It is tough, it's really tough.
What are you working on now?
We're doing a book now with Aperture about Tiny [Charles, a longtime friend and subject of Mark and her husband]. And so we went twice out to Seattle, for the film. Not for pictures—unfortunately there's not time for me to do more pictures, but for the film. At the very end Martin and I are going to make one more trip out there. Just in case he needs any spots filled in the film. We followed her for 30 years, It wasn't like we met her in Streetwise and then came back 30 years later, it's like over the past 30 years we've made several trips to Seattle where Martin's filmed her at different periods of her life, and I've photographed her.
So you met Tiny when he was filming Streetwise?
No, I met Tiny first. My discovery! Right ? Mart? I discovered Tiny, right?
Martin Bell: Yup
Mark: I did everything!
Bell: You did everything.
I met her in Seattle, when I was doing a story for LIFE magazine. There was a wonderful editor they had called John Loengard, who is also a great photographer. He was a great editor, because he was a very fine photographer who became a photo editor. It's very challenging to work with people who are really good and understand photography. Elisabeth Biondi is not a photographer, but she was a very good photo editor [of The New Yorker, where Mark was a regular contributor]. Very hard to please. I like hard to please.
Because it makes you take better pictures?
You know, you can't get away with the tricks.
So I had an assignment for LIFE magazine to photograph street kids in Seattle. I went out there and spent three and a half weeks with a writer. And the first big Friday night there I met Tiny. She stepped out of a taxicab. When I met her she was 13 years old, and dressed like a prostitute. Dressed like a grown-up prostitute.
You met Tiny on assignment for LIFE, and this was your job, right? Are these kind of magazine assignments still out there?
Absolutely not! In regard to photography, magazines have become more and more... illustrative. Don't you see that?
Mary Ellen Mark: The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987
You are a social documentary photographer, which is a job that doesn't exist anymore.
It does not exist. I'm glad you said that. It doesn't exist anymore.