Without Mary Ellen Mark I wouldn't be where I am today, and that's not hyperbole.
I met Mary Ellen and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell back in 1999 when I was a cocky successful guy with a camera. I was churning out work at a prodigious rate and getting gallery shows at a mind-numbing pace and fortune one afternoon tossed me into a boat and I ended up working as an assistant for one of the greatest photographers on the planet and I thought it was going to be my chance to grandstand a bit.
I showed her my portfolio and she was ... completely and utterly unimpressed. Then I watched as she took a classroom filled with people who had mostly never picked up a camera and they all shot circles around me, producing images I thought were impossible. I was baffled. I'd been working at this for years, how was I not great? And worse than that, how could she make amateurs better than me in a single day?
In that time Mary Ellen Mark gave me the first real and honest critique of my work I'd ever had, and over the years I realized that every thing she told me was right. After that I went on to have the number one selling photography book in America and to do a ton of things with amazing people that I never would have been able to do if someone hadn't taken the time to point out that it's easy to be the best photographer in the room, but you don't want to be the best photographer in the room. You want to be much, much better than that.
Since I want you to back this Kickstarter, let me tell you some of the things that I learned from her.
1) Treat all your subjects the same. Bias starts when you choose or accept an assignment. You have bias, you're a human being. You need to be aware of that, consciously, and then be as honest as possible with your camera. Resist sensationalizing your work to fit the preconceived notions of your audience.
I don't think any photograph has impacted my view of photography and the role of a documentary photographer as much as this photo Mary Ellen took at a Klan rally in 1986. It says more by not saying anything than any other photograph I think I've ever seen. That it is ordinary makes it extraordinary.
2) If you want to be a successful photographer, you don't need a fancy camera. What you need is this: The ability to go to a street corner, any street corner, or a bus stop, or a swimming pool, and be able to get someone you've never met before to invite you into their house to photograph them. Sometimes that ability comes through natural charm and a curious nature, other times it's sheer force of will. But that's what you need. Photography isn't about f-stops and shutter speeds, it's about talking to people.
This photo is from her essay about the Damm family who lived mostly in their car. (Caption from the Telegraph.)
Crissy, Dean and Linda Damm, Llano, California, USA, 1994. Mark first photographed the Damm family for an assignment on homelessness in 1987. The 1994 follow-up found them still living in squalor
Mary Ellen's third book was about prostitutes in India. She went to a notorious street corner, with her camera, and stayed there for days. Eventually she got to know the women who were working there and eventually, they invited her back to their hotel rooms and houses and she got some amazing work because she went and stayed and worked as long as it took.
3) "No" just means you haven't asked the right person.
The first thing Mary Ellen had me do when I was working as her assistant was go to the local 1 hour photo lab and arrange for the class' film to be picked up at 8:00 pm, developed over night, and delivered to us at 9 the next morning. So I went to the photo lab and I talked to the manager and the manager said "Our store closes at 8:00pm. We'll start developing your film when we open and we can have it to you by 1:00."
So I called Mary Ellen and told her we could have the film back by one. She said "That's unacceptable. Call her back and tell her we need the film at 9:00 am and if she can't do that, find out who can." So I went back to the store, the manager had left, I created a ruckus until they gave me her home number, I called her at home, she said the store closed at 8:00pm, thank you. So I asked for the number of her district manager who I called at home at 9:00 at night or so and said "We need this store to stay open all night and process our film. It's 200 rolls (or whatever) and it needs to be done by 9:00 in the morning." I said it not because I thought she would, but because I wanted to be able to go back and say "I tried, they said no." But the district manager called the manager and said "schedule people to work over night on this." I called Mary Ellen back at 11 pm or so and told her they'd do it. I was expecting she'd be overjoyed I'd done the impossible, but I hadn't, I'd only done my job. The class went on, I did more impossible things, but each time they seemed less impossible, and now I do impossible things nearly every time I take on a photo project, but now I realize that if you want things to happen, you have to be the sort of person who makes things happen.
So it stands to reason that if the documentary magazines are all dead and nobody's giving out the assignments that matter -- that no magazine is going to pay to send Mary Ellen and Martin back to make a movie about Tiny, that Mary Ellen and Martin need to find the people who can say "yes", and that's us. We're all the people who make things happen.
Reward levels between $25 and $100 get you things like a signed post card, poster, or copy of the book. Rewards go all the way up to $10,000 for a portrait sitting.
You can also Check out Mary Ellen's work here.
There are clips from Martin's film Streetwise on youtube here and you can see all the photos from the book Streetwise here on Mary Ellen's website.
Add me: [LiveJournal] [Facebook] [Twitter] [Google+] [Tumblr] [Instagram]