Mary Ellen Mark

American photographer Mary Ellen Mark has been taking pictures for more than 50 years. Her work has appeared in Life, New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. But it is her work as a social documentarian that lies at the heart of her practice.

Written by      

Chae Kihn

I wanted to be an artist and take pictures that move people and that would last far beyond my lifetime. I wanted to become really great at what I did, that’s always been my goal. I always thought of magazines as kind of my grants. A lot of the time they’d let me go and work on my ideas.

Work for magazines now is very illustrative, and I’m not an illustrator, I’m a storyteller. Today images in magazines are controlled by post-production, that’s the real artist, not the photographer. If young photographers are interested in what I was, in telling stories, they have to pursue that. Don’t let technology push you around.

You have to be determined. When I first went to India in the late 60s someone took me to Falkland Road. It made a lasting impression on me and ‘I said I’m going to come back here to photograph these women’. It took ten years to pull it together, but I did go back and photograph them. I’m proud of that work [Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay] and nothing has come close to it as far as the intimacy and the look into the lives of these women. People still struggle with how to deal with that work.

All my projects mean something to me. I develop relationships with many of my subjects and l love going back. I really believe in going back. It’s very moving when a project ends and yes, it’s sad. But I’ve always felt you are only as good as the next thing you do, so I’ve made myself move on.

It is very easy, too easy to be a good photographer now, but there are very few greats. Great images heighten people’s awareness about life, about art and humanity. The photographers who were the great photographers are still the great ones —W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, André Kertész, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt.

I don’t think people know what good photography is anymore, not just the public but those working on magazines also. There is no discrimination, everything is uploaded, downloaded, and we are inundated with images. People are not dazzled anymore by how difficult it is to take great pictures. I mean it is true that anyone can take a picture, and some make good pictures, but it is very hard to make great pictures, very hard. I don’t think people know the difference anymore. I think people are becoming numb. Now we are seeing average nothingness.

I’m not against digital photography, I teach and most of my students shoot digitally and make some great pictures, but for me it is a different mindset, so it’s a different thought process, and I know film so well and love the print.

I try to teach my students to make pictures that are wonderful, not to just spit out imagery and we have a lot of that these days. I think it is important to be more careful and to invest the time you need to do great work, not necessarily even a long-term project, but to understand what great imagery is.

I hope my body of work communicates a love and interest in mankind and justice for mankind and provides a look at what life was like during my lifetime, a personal and yet unique look.

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