Mary Ellen Mark
Eternal iconic photography that speaks the voice of truth in frame
written Mikal Shkreli
photographed Alban E. Smajli
April 21, 2014: On a sunny day in SoHo, I met up with Alban E. Smajli outside the studio of well-known photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. Waiting for the buzzer to let us upstairs, I had reviewed my notes on some background research on the artist. Mary Ellen was born in Philadelphia and after receiving her Masters Degree in photojournalism, she traveled to Europe under a Fulbright Scholarship. Making her way to New York a few years later, Mary Ellen has created a notable name for herself in photography, art, and the world of social culture, her work featured in exhibits worldwide. The door buzzed and we entered the elevator. The door slided open directly to the studio, and we stepped out, looking around the high ceilings and at the endless items across bookshelves, desks, countertops. We walked past copy and printing machines of various kinds and found one of Mary Ellen’s assistants behind a computer, informing us that Mary Ellen would be with us in just a few moments. Escorted to a few chairs around a humble table, Alban E. and I prepared our questions and Mary Ellen emerged from a region unknown, deeper within the studio.
With two braids parted down the center of her head and extending down her back, Mary Ellen has approached us with a smile and wide eyes that peered through her small framed glasses. Her dress, resembling ethnic-wear from Central America, had worked cohesively with her hair and the cactuses that adorned the space. And between the cacti and other desert friendly plants, skeletal figures stood with poise, watching our meeting.
Mary Ellen’s work has been revered and known for their subject matter, displaying aspects of society not commonly represented in the spotlight of mainstream culture. She hasphotographed Vietnam War demonstrations, celebrities, transvestites, women’s liberation movements, and everyday people in the New York City streets, with and without their awareness of being photographed. When asking about her choices in subject matter for her work, I asked Mary Ellen, “how do you decide?” To which she responded,
" Sometimes you photograph someone you don´t even know, on an assignment, and there are some people that are just interesting to watch. So you choose them because of that. "
“Mary Ellen Mark: Just on the frame (...) basically, you decide how you want to make a frame (...) so it looks right. When you’re in a studio, it’s one thing, but when you’re on location, you want to change the background and make sure it works perfectly as a frame.
Mikal Shkreli: Is there something particular about a person or a person’s image that would draw you to bring more of an intimate scope with photography?
MEM: Well, I mean, sometimes you photograph someone you don’t even know, on an assignment, and there are some people that are just interesting to watch. So you choose them because of that.
The choices that Mary Ellen maked for her images are very particular, explaining that “each situation is totally different.” She continued, admitting that “you don’t want to kind of repeat yourself (...) but each situation calls for something very different.” I glanced around and noticed numerous frames of her work high up on the walls, noticing her range in work.
MS: Do you have any preference between street photography or portraits?
MEM: Well, basically, my feeling, the hardest photography to do is street photography. Those are the people’s work I’ve really admired from the beginning. That’s why I became a photographer.
MS: Do you try to create a story when you see somebody?
MEM: I try to make a frame of it that says something.
I took a moment to glance around the studio some more, noticing wooden carved figures of roosters, Micky Mouse, Jesus, and more skeletal images and figures, even color skeleton streamers were hanging from the lights, resembling the Day of the Dead, providing a deeper feel into Mary Ellen’s native essence, her style, her interests, her mysterious appeal that translated into her photography, causing the eyes to linger for an extra amount of time, piecing together the puzzle, figuring out what is being shared. I had asked Mary Ellen about the dynamics in shooting.
MEM: If you’re doing a portrait, you have to take a certain amount of control - you have to be in control. They have to feel that you know what you’re doing, then they have a respect for you. It’s a balance, there is a very delicate balance.
MS: Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility to bring people to life in a photograph, by exposing them or sharing them to the world in a particular way?
MEM: Yea, to be honest. Pictures can lie very easily, so you have to be honest, have respect, or not have respect, whatever, with what you want to say with your camera - not to lie to people.
MS: So what are you trying to say with your camera?
MEM: Each situation is totally different. You’re trying to make an image that’s memorable, maybe iconic. If you’re lucky, you know, iconic.
Innovative enigmatic, resourceful, and ready to readjust to change and circumstance and situations and work with them in order to produce the most fruitful result of art, Mary Ellen was a true artist; open with her approach and unique in her view on life and how to capture it, in essence.
MS: What do you hold as the power in photography, your photography?
MEM: I think the power in photography - it’s very difficult, now everyone is a photographer, so the bar has been lowered. There’s not as much respect and there’s a lot of really bad scenes being shot that aren’t good. And people don’t know the difference, so, what do I respect, I respect people who’s work I think is great, and whose work hasn’t been lowered by the bar. Everyone’s a photographer now, so people think it’s easy and anyone can do it. In a way it is easy, it’s very easy to take an average picture, that’s a piece of cake. To take great pictures is really hard.
MS: What is the distinguishing level?
MEM: You just look at it. Helen Levitt, Irving Penn, they take great pictures. You just know it when you look at it. It’s talking to you, it’s saying something to you.
We took a momentary break from the interview while one of Mary Ellen’s assistants asked her a few questions. I observed the large bookshelf behind me, full of books, organized with labels, mostly on photography. Mary Ellen has seventeen published books of photographs, with numerous contributions to publications such as Vanity Fair, Life, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and more. Before the rows of books there were cartoon figures of Popeye, George Bush, Queen Elizabeth and a few other fun notable figures. Alban E. asked her if she was still shoot shooting analog or digital.
MEM: Yes. I have a digital camera, (...) I mean, I think it’s a different medium, (...), and I love film, my whole life I’ve always done film. I have a really great digital camera, but I haven’t used it yet. But I think it’s different from film and it is different. I guess I’m always afraid that I’m going to see something amazing and miss it in film. As long as I can still shoot film and get film - but there’s a transition. I’m not the only one, there are other people shooting film.
Continuing on the subject of analog versus digital photography, Mary Ellen explained that “it’s a different mindset, it looks different, especially for black and white. I shoot mainly in black and white. I think for color, digital can be very beautiful sometimes, but for black and white, I like silver prints. But people put a lot of pressure on you to shoot digital.” Mary Ellen then refered to the annual Easter Parade that took place a day prior our meeting in May 2014, “everybody was taking pictures. Everybody! I mean, I’m talking from five years up to like, old men with their cameras. And people are being shoved and pushed, and it’s just really - there’s no more borders."
In the evolution of photography, experienced by our social culture, from analog to digital, to handheld "phone-tography", the bar has been ‘lowered’ to a playing field without borders, where anyone can snap a photo. But what distinguishes a great photo is something that speaks, something eternal. Mary Ellen captured the honesty of what is, the actuality of a subject from a perspective lens. Not through manipulation of image and representation, but through a focused aspect of perception through lens, Mary Ellen Mark gripped at the core of photography, allowing art to be formed in a still image within a frame, iconic. Mary Ellen Mark died on age 75 one year after our interview.
We will keep you always in best thoughts.