Mary Ellen Mark: Man and Beast

A world-renowned photographer and teacher discusses her latest book that explores the profound connections between humans and animals.

One of the most acclaimed and influential photographers of her generation, Mary Ellen Mark has achieved an almost legendary status through her impressive array of books, exhibitions and editorial work for magazines. Her photo-essays and portraits have appeared in such prestigious publications as LIFE, New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. For over four decades, she has traveled extensively to make pictures that reflect an abiding humanity, compassion, and empathy. Her images of our world’s diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. Her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, and brothels in Bombay, were the product of many years of diligent work in India. Her photo essay on runaway children in Seattle became the basis of the Academy Award nominated film STREETWISE, directed and photographed by her husband, Martin Bell.

Mary Ellen Mark recently received the Lifetime Achievement in Photography award from the George Eastman House and the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award from the World Photography Organisation. She has also received the Infinity Award for Journalism, the Cornell Capa Award, an Erna & Victor Hasselblad Foundation Grant, and a Walter Annenberg Grant for her book and exhibition project on America. Among her other awards are the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the Matrix Award for outstanding woman in the field of film/photography, and the Dr. Erich Salomon Award for outstanding merits in the field of journalistic photography. Mark was also presented with honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from her Alma Mater, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Arts; three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Photographer of the Year Award from the Friends of Photography; the World Press Award for Outstanding Body of Work Throughout the Years; the Victor Hasselblad Cover Award; two Robert F. Kennedy Awards; and the Creative Arts Award Citation for Photography at Brandeis University.

She has published eighteen books including Passport (Lustrum Press, 1974), Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Falkland Road (Knopf, 1981), Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity in Calcutta (Friends of Photography, 1985), The Photo Essay: Photographers at work (A Smithsonian series), Streetwise (second printing, Aperture, 1992), Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years (Bulfinch, 1991), Indian Circus (Chronicle, 1993 and Takarajimasha Inc., 1993), Portraits (Motta Fotografica, 1995 and Smithsonian, 1997), a Cry for Help (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey (Aperture, 1999), Mary Ellen Mark 55 (Phaidon, 2001), Photo Poche: Mary Ellen Mark (Nathan, 2002), Twins (Aperture, 2003), Exposure (Phaidon, 2005), Extraordinary Child (The National Museum of Iceland, 2007), Seen Behind the Scene (Phaidon, 2009), Prom (Getty, 2012) and Man and Beast (University of Texas Press, 2014.) Mark’s photographs have been exhibited worldwide.

She also acted as the associate producer of the major motion picture, AMERICAN HEART (1992), directed by Martin Bell. Her book, Exposure, is a large retrospective book published by Phaidon Press that showcases 134 of Mary Ellen’s best images, including both iconic and previously unpublished images.

Aside from her book and magazine work, Mark has photographed advertising campaigns for such prestigious clients as Barnes and Noble, British Levis, Coach Bags, Eileen Fisher, Hasselblad, Heineken, Keds, Mass Mutual, Nissan, and Patek Philippe.

Q: I’ve always admired your work. I think that you bring something special to photography. At your best, you capture the eternity in the moment. We are here to talk about “Man and Beast.” Personally I believe that you and I are on the same wavelength in that we agree that there is a commonality between humans and animals.

A: I’m glad to hear that. I sometimes wonder if it’s just my imagination.

Q: It’s definitely not. Now, of course, not everyone would agree with you on that, but I do. We are mammals. Certainly we have advantages that make us the dominant species but fundamentally we are of the animal kingdom and we share many characteristics. Evolution indicates that those old forms are in us and the very identity of other species is in our code. In a somewhat self-congratulatory way we like to refer to ourselves as homo sapiens which means wise man, although we aren’t always so wise as a species. The wisdom of the eons embodied in the animals is sometimes wiser than we and knows things that we can’t possibly imagine.

Anyway. To some extent this book, “Man and Beast” is kind of a retrospective. There are some older images here from the ’60s and ’70s shot in India and Mexico. How did you come up with this concept of identifying a theme that in some sense you had already done?

A: More than half of these pictures, especially the ones from Mexico, have never been published before. The early ones have been. I teach in Oaxaca and when I’m teaching I rarely photograph. I concentrate rather on helping the students with their work. Now and then I would stay a couple of days extra after the class and take pictures. So they weren’t really known. I’ve always thought that there was a common quality between India and Mexico and I wanted to somehow express that. I also wanted to use the title “Man and Beast” because I love animals. I’ve always loved animals.

Q: I agree with you. Unfortunately I have never been to India, but I have been to Mexico quite extensively. There is something about the relationship to the land and the animals. Do you agree?

A: Yes. And it’s the same in India.

Q: We have small farmers in the United States and we certainly have people with strong connections to animals, but it seems to be more of a cultural thing in these places. What do you think are the commonalities between India and Mexico are and how would you describe that?

A: I think it’s the special relationship between man and animal and between man and the land, for sure. But beyond that there is an ironic craziness that both countries possess. There’s never a dull moment and both countries have a very surreal quality.

Q: I agree. They are both lands of strange juxtapositions.

A: Bill Wittliff from the Wittliff Collections asked me to do a project with him and he is specifically interested in Mexico, so I thought that this would be a good opportunity to publish some of these pictures that I hadn’t published before and to connect them with images from India. I love dogs, and I always have a dog party every Christmas.

Q: Yes, I’ve read about your dog parties. It sounds great. I am a lifelong dog person. I’ve always said that dogs are the nicest people.

A: I love all kinds of animals, even snakes.

Q: I notice that all of these pictures are black-and-white.

A:  It’s my primary method.

Q: What do you feel is particularly compelling and meaningful about shooting in black-and-white?

A: I love the abstraction of it. I think it goes right to the heart of the content. I’m not saying that I don’t like color. There are a lot of fantastic color photographers out there. But it’s different and it makes you think differently about your subject.

Color is very difficult too. It might be more difficult because you have an extra element. But really I just see in black-and-white.

Q: Can you say something about your technique? And what kind of camera and lenses do you use?

A: I’m still primarily an analog photographer. I shoot with Kodak Tri-X film with all kinds of cameras and formats. I even use Polaroid and I have several Leica M6 cameras.

Q: The M6 is a wonderful camera.

A: I have a Monochrom that I got last year as well, but I haven’t had an opportunity to work with it yet because I’m still recovering from a broken shoulder.

Q: Oh my! Well I hope you’re feeling better soon. By the way what do you think is the main difference between shooting with an SLR and a rangefinder camera?

A: Even without autofocus I’m very fast with a rangefinder because it was my first camera. But I think you can be very fast with a “through the lens” camera too. But also the size difference is notable and you can use a much slower shutter speed with a rangefinder camera. The new Leica medium-format digital looks like it is very fast though.

Q: In taking a look at these pictures from the book it appears you have achieved a wide, smooth, natural tonal gradation. The book has been printed to a high standard and I’m very glad to see that.

A: The book was printed in China, but the separations are key. Of course the prints are important too. I have a fantastic printer, Chuck Kelton, and Bob Hennessey, who makes the separations, is also brilliant.

Q: Their excellence certainly shows. From a technical standpoint these images really stand out.

A: There’s no point in doing a book unless technically the prints look fantastic. Bob has done the separations for all of my books. He is amazing.

Q: To get my two cents in about the rangefinder versus single-lens reflex discussion: it seems to me that with an SLR you are looking at the world through the camera, but with a rangefinder camera you are looking at the world directly with your eyes, but by the way you have this device that you can use to put a frame around what you’re seeing. Existentially it’s kind of different.

A: What I love about the rangefinder is the surprise. I always feel that when I look at something I shot with a rangefinder I don’t really know what I’m going to get. And when the picture works it is a very pleasant surprise. And I’m fast with it. If you look back at a lot of the great street photographers you’ll notice that a lot of them use rangefinders and I think it’s because they’re so fast.

Q: When you’re shooting with one of your Leica M6 cameras which lenses do you use?

A: My three favorites are the 35 mm, 24 mm and 28 mm.

Q: Obviously one of them is wide and the other is on the verge of semi-wide, but they both can be called wide-angle lenses. What is about those focal lengths that you find so conducive to your particular kind of photography?

A: It’s just that you’re closer to your subjects and I like that the space and depth. I don’t use long lenses in my personal work. If you’re working in the studio in medium or large format, that’s a different story. I wouldn’t put a wide lens on there. But on the street or on location I tend to use a wider lens.

Q: What is there about being closer to your subjects?

A: You can use depth and space more effectively. That’s how I frame, with the background more in focus. It is a big part of the frame and image. Too much out of focus can be distracting. Most street photographers use lenses in the 24 mm to 35 mm range. Some brilliant photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson might use a 50 mm, but it’s very hard.

Q: Based on conversations with dozens of photojournalists and street photographers I’d say 35 mm is the ideal focal length for street photography. Now you made an interesting statement just now when you said that the background is in focus and is therefore less distracting. The current tendency or trend is to shoot at wide apertures and get a soft blurry background.

A: Well it all depends on how you frame it. Often with a longer lens the background can become visually closer to your subject and therefore it becomes more distracting.

Q: What were you trying to accomplish with this book and do you think that you succeeded?

A: I was trying to publish some of my pictures with animals and others that tried to capture the animalistic nature of man. I think I generally achieved these goals.

Q: You can see a lot of different elements in your photography. Somebody once said to me that your work is at the intersection of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus.

A: I get compared to Diane Arbus a lot and I think it’s only because we are both women. My work is very different than hers in concept, content, and technique.

Q: Yes, but there is a sense of irony and playfulness in both of your work. Her work is a lot darker, I think. I wouldn’t take it personally and I’m not saying it’s necessarily an accurate description but it does make you think. I’m looking at this picture of a light colored donkey with a dog perched happily on a saddle. It’s a charming picture.

A: It’s a caught moment. I took the picture because the dog really looks like he’s smiling.

Q: It’s a simple, straightforward picture but it has a certain transcendent quality. It puts you there. There is a certain “being there” reality to it that makes it, as I said before, eternity in the moment. How did you shoot that picture?

A: That was on a Leica in India. I just saw it. Sometimes you’re someplace and you just see something.

Q: Let’s look at these twin brothers from India.

A: It was taken in Calcutta at the circus.

Q. It is literally the man and the beast. It has an almost demonic quality to it.

A: It’s ironic. An Indian woman told me that this image was demeaning to Indians. I have no idea why but I thought it was a funny reaction. They were performers in the circus and they were dressed as chimps. They were on their way to perform and I liked it so I just grabbed the picture. That’s what’s great about a Leica — you can just grab it.

Q: I’m now looking at the Sleeping Dogs, Burning Ghat. Can you tell me something about it?

A: That’s just the way it looks on the ghats in Benares, India. There are sleeping dogs on a lot of the steps. There are a lot of wild dogs there also.

Q: The official name for them is “Pariah Dogs.”

A: You certainly don’t want to get bitten by one.

Q: What I really love about this picture is the contrast between the randomness of the animals and the geometric structure of the staircase. It’s kind of a visual and emotional dichotomy.

Q: Let’s talk about Child Acrobat with Two Children in Peacock Costumes.

A: That was just on their way to perform. It was very surreal.

Q: I like the fact that the background is in focus. It really works for this image,

A: I think I shot it with a 28 mm lens.

Q: What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: It’s impossible to describe that. You just see something and your brain says “That’s a photograph!” and then you take it. Then later you look at your sheets and find out if you were right or wrong. There’s just a trigger that goes off in your brain and you hope you made a great photograph.

Q: So it’s a spontaneous act?

A: Exactly. You know, when I teach I try to get my students that shoot digitally not to look at the back of their camera. Most of them shoot digitally and I want them to just wait to look at the images later. You never know if you have it or not until you enlarge it and see it in scale.

Q: Emily Dickinson asked her preceptor, “Does my poetry live?” How do you know when the picture lives?

A: You know after you enlarge it and it works; if it translated what you were thinking when you took it. When all of the right elements come together and it works, then you know.

Q. There’s one picture that really intrigues me. There are people in the water and the guy is floating near the shore, held in a kind of stretcher. What’s going on there?

A: It’s of the Burning Ghats of Benares, where bodies are prepared and taken to the fires to be burned.

Q: So that person isn’t alive?

A: Correct. It’s a very sacred place where they cremate bodies. Unless he’s a holy man and in that case he will be taken by boat out to the Ganges River and won’t be burned.

Q: And what is the animal connection in this photograph?

A: It’s the end of life. It’s something that we all face. It’s a very sad picture for me.

Q: In this other photo of two people in the water you don’t know where the bodies begin and the water ends. The tonal gradation is astounding.

A: That’s in a shrine in Mexico where twice a year they celebrate a Mexican saint. It’s like a baptism. It’s called Niño Fidencio. That place was really quite extraordinary. It was only possible to get that picture by going into the water myself.

Q: This is a picture that includes someone preening himself in a mirror.

A: That was in Calcutta at a boy’s home.

Q: The range of visual elements are stunning. It has such an emotional quality. What does it mean to you?

A: It was just a moment where the light was right. It was a peaceful moment in this home for orphan boys.

Q: You got some amazing depth of field there.

A: I’m eventually going to make a book on my pictures from Mother Teresa’s missions in Calcutta. I’ve got a lot of pictures from there.

Q: Finally let’s talk about this boy with a puppy.

A: That was shot with a 35 mm lens on a Leica. This is one of my favorite dog pictures. It was early morning in Rajasthan, India. It was kind of chilly; that’s why he has a shawl around him. He was just standing there with his puppies.

Q: What do you like most about this book?

A: It was a good chance to publish some of my pictures that haven’t been seen and to republish some older pictures like the elephant trainer and fit them all into some sort of theme. It was great to work with Bill and the people at the University of Texas Press who published the book. They make beautiful books. I really admire what they do and it was a really pleasant experience.

Thank you for your time, Mary Ellen!

- Leica Internet Team

View more of Mary Ellen’s work on her website, Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about her workshops in Iceland and New York City.

For the sake of convenience, we’ve presented this in a Q&A format but it was actually a conversation between our blog writer, Jason Schneider and Mary Ellen Mark.