Picks and Pans Review: Mary Ellen Mark, 25 Years
by Marianne Fulton
Great photographers know what their subjects are...what moves them deeply," writes Fulton, a curator at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., in this study of Mark's work.
In her 25-year career, Mark has shown a rare empathy for her subjects—mostly nonfamous people, often anonymous people, frequently people on an edge. Never a journalistic fly on the wall, she lives the lives of her subjects. "The longer I stay, the closer I can get," she has said.
In 1976 she spent 36 days in a women's maximum security unit of an Oregon mental hospital. Her pictures of these inmates appear in a section called "Confinement." (The mentally ill, she notes, "tell us about inhibitions and all those things that we hide so much....the emotions are pure.")
Many of Mark's subjects are confined, if not by walls in institutions, then by lives with few choices.
In 1983 Mark was assigned by LIFE to photograph runaway kids on the Seattle streets—an assignment that yielded her best-known essay. That article also led to her book Streetwise and an acclaimed documentary film.
The collective impact of the black-and-white photographs in this retrospective is hardly cheering: A rural Texas boy lies in a sheetless bed next to a dirty refrigerator filled with junk—sneakers, hangers—but no food. Junkies shoot up in London. Residents of Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying sadly await the end.
There are few bright moments. Even Edgar Bergen, carefully packing his sidekick Charlie McCarthy into a suitcase, provides an eerie portrait.
The final section of the book, "Indian Circus," derived from two recent trips Mark made to India to shoot circuses, provides less depressing shots. Mark has already been compared to Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith and Diane Arbus. But this book is a fitting testimonial to her own unique talents—to be revealing but not intrusive, provocative but not exploitive. "I like feeling that I'm able to be a voice for those people who aren't famous," Mark says, "the people that don't have the great opportunities." (Bulfinch, $60)
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