Mary Ellen Mark
March 20, 1940 - May 25, 2015
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Mary Ellen Mark was the first person who told me that my photographs were terrible. That was in 1999. I’d been thinking for years that they were pretty good and I’d gotten a whole bunch of gallery shows, but Mary Ellen tore them down and she was absolutely right. I’ve learned over the years that criticism comes in two forms, praise and growth, and there’s a time for each. Mary Ellen was the first person whose criticism made me seriously grow as an artist. I’d learned things that needed to be torn down and built up again. It's certainly true that I wouldn't be where I am today without her influence.
I learned a lot from her, but primarily, I think, five things:
1) “No” means that you haven’t asked the right person. I was her assistant in 1999 while she was teaching a documentary photography class and then again in 2000 or 2001 (I forget). Students would go out and shoot during the day, they'd drop off their film then we’d meet in the morning and go over everybody’s photos. At the end of the first day she sent me out to a local 1 hour lab to tell them we’d be dropping off a hundred or more rolls of film at 5:00 and we needed them at 8:00 in the morning. The manager told me they closed at 8:00pm and they’d be able to do a few by closing and the rest sometime during the following day. I called Mary Ellen at her hotel and told her and she said “no, that’s not how it’s going to happen. Find the district manager and tell them we need this film processed printed and returned by 8:00 am every day.” And that was it, she hung up. So I found the district manager and the store stayed open until midnight every night to process our film, I'd stay there waiting for it to be done and each morning there was a review of the previous days photographs. It make me realize that everything is negotiable.
2) Photography isn’t about f-stops and lenses, it’s about being able to talk to people. Whether that’s saying “I’d like to make a photograph of you” or “I’d like to get up on the roof of your building”, the technical aspect of photography is only part of it, and it’s the easy part and many times the least important part. It's really easy to accumulate a lot of gear instead of working to be a better artist. She sent the students out to street corners and told them to get someone to invite them into their house to photograph them. The students made friends, they built relationships, they got in people's lives and they produced amazing work. That was a huge eye opener for me.
3) A photograph has to be able to stand on its own without text. You can add text to a photo, but the photo itself has to be good enough that you’d hang it on the wall if the caption was missing because some day it may exist as an artifact without its context and when it's hanging on a wall someone needs to be captivated by it in passing, without knowing any of the back story. All of her photographs work like that. You don’t need to know that someone’s a movie star or someone’s a prostitute or someone else just won a mustache contest, they’re all beautiful images first. She did enduring and beautiful portraits of celebrities and the same for people who weren't. In the years before reality television she taught us that everybody has a compelling story and everybody deserves the chance to have their story told.
4) Leave decisions to the viewer, don’t editorialize in camera. People shouldn’t be able to tell whether or not you like the person you’re photographing, they should think only that your pictures are good. She made me realize that people aren't cartoons. That nobody wakes up in the morning thinking "Today I'm going to wreck the world" -- everybody wakes up thinking that they're doing good.
5) Things are easier when you have a guide. I learned to look for someone on the inside to make introductions for you. Finding the right person at the start is important and can save you a lot of time. But Mary Ellen didn't always do this herself, she had an amazing ability to just walk into a place and be accepted. She has an amazing photo of a party at spring break which I asked her about once. She said she was walking along the beach and heard a party happening in an apartment, so she just walked in and photographed the party -- AND she got everybody there to sign a model release. I was always interested in her Behind the Scenes because how she got the photos was often as unbelievable as the photos themselves.
As a photographer Mary Ellen was tenacious, as a person she was kind, and as a mentor she was honest. She and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell were always generous to me, recommending me to magazines, plugging my books, inviting me to parties and introducing me to people. (She would often introduce me by saying: "This is the weirdest photographer you'll ever meet. He's good, but he's weird. Aren't you?") In my office now there's a giant box with a copy of the Bed Song Book in it addressed to them. It's been sitting here for months. I kept thinking "ah, it's too heavy to carry to the post office today." I'm sad she didn't get to see it, I'm sad I thought she'd be around forever and that I acted like there'd always be tomorrow. She did get to see my librarian portraits and I'm glad for that. I want to live up to her expectations.
She loved animals. She once rescued a dog that someone was going to shoot and gave it to a movie star. That dog had no idea how lucky he was, but I know how lucky I was; she changed my life just as much.
She hated digital cameras and she hated selfies. I once asked if I could take a portrait of her and she said "Only if you use film." She thought that a Hasselblad and an off-camera flash was a perfectly reasonable rig for street photography. She cared about the people she photographed, maybe that's the most important thing she taught me.
Photo by Bernard Delgado taken properly, with a Leica.
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