Earlier this week I caught the faint whisper that Mary Ellen Mark had passed away.
I was first exposed to her work through her documentary Street Wise. I had just moved to Philadelphia from Seattle, WA where her documentary took place. Although filmed 25years before I arrived in Seattle, the landscape was still familiar. I had just been introduced to the work of Diane Arbus and Dorothea Lange, these women who had created these relationships through the lens of their camera to give those that were being overlooked a voice. Watching the documentary, I was overwhelmed by Mark’s ability to tell this story without glamorizing the life of Tiny or Rat. She didn’t make me feel sorry for them either, somehow she found that middle road that so many struggle to find when dealing with this type of subject matter. I left the class and walked straight to the library to pour over her photography, in awe of the way she put herself and her camera unashamedly into this world that was not her own in order to capture it. Along with Arbus and Lange, the subject knows they are being photographed. Many of Mark’s shots imply that she was bent down, leaning in, engaging with the subject to photograph them. I wish I could be that bold.
You put a living, breathing, human being in front of my camera and my blood stops moving through my veins. Even if I know them, if they are willing to be photographed, or even if they asked me to photograph them the reaction is the same. My stomach tightens and my mouth goes dry as I fumble around with my suddenly foreign camera. I had to go out and shoot at least two portraits of strangers in Portland for the medium format class I was taking. It was one of the later assignments, I had made a few dozen photos already and was incredibly comfortable with the camera I was using. Then I went and tried to complete the assignment, waiting until the last possible moment to do it. I nervously stood on a busy street, trying to find the courage to stop biting the side of my thumb and wondering where I was going to find the courage to actually ask someone if I could take their picture. When I finally did it went horribly wrong. I quickly took two shots making so many mistakes you would think it was the first time I had ever attempted to photograph anything. For some their camera gives them this confidence. For me its not big enough to hide behind and instead draws to much attention when I am trying to go unseen.
As always, thanks for reading.
Time Article about Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark Website
Diane Arbus Website
Recent article on Dorothea Lange from NPR