Mary Ellen Mark: Nothing More Extraordinary than Reality

Mary Ellen Mark is a renowned, award-winning photographer. Her work has spanned over 40 years with exhibits all over the world including “Leica: My First Camera” that premiered at the opening of Leica Store and Gallery Los Angeles in June 2013 and is now on display at Leica Store Washington DC.

Currently, Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell, her husband, have a Kickstarter campaign to fund a film revisiting Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, 30 years after the making of the Academy Award nominated documentary “Streetwise.”

Q: When was the first time you ever put your hands on a Leica camera?

A: I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where I majored in painting and fine arts and then I got a scholarship to the Annenburg School for Communication. At that time it was more of an arts school. You could take a course in film making or television production. The school was started by Walter Annenburg and it had incredible state of the art modern equipment in all fields available to students. If you took photography they had any camera you could imagine working with available for you to borrow. There were Leicas and Rolleiflexes and Retinas, just everything you might need. If you took film making they gave you a budget to make a film and they had everything, Arriflex and Bolexes, etc. They had a television studio downstairs. And in photography, they gave you all the paper and film you needed. It was amazing. It was like a little paradise.

I always loved photography, so I decided to major in photography. I remember the first time I went out on the street with a camera. I started with the less expensive camera – the Retina. Then I tried a Rollei and it was heavier but intriguing. I tried to take an architectural photograph and I dropped it over the bannister of the school. I was humiliated. I had to pay to have it fixed. It was expensive. I tried the Leica and I loved it immediately. That summer I went to Europe and photographed and I took a Leica with me. The Leica was my first street camera.  I’ve worked with Leica for years and years and years. I know it really well. It is still a great camera. I still work with it today.

Q: Let’s talk about people. A good portrait photograph tells us way more about the person.  It’s a document of them. Do you agree?

A: A portrait is a single image that captures the essence of a person. Even when I did documentary stories for magazines, I tried to capture single iconic images that stood on their own. A documentary assignment, for me, was an attempt to capture single iconic images that could stand on their own. Today, those magazines that assigned documentary stories no longer exist.

Q: Today the great images get pushed aside. We are inundated with lots of images now. So to find that singular frame that is etched in our collective memory, I think it goes away. It’s different. As someone in search of iconic images, what are your thoughts on this?

A: I teach workshops and I still have students that make great singular images. That is what I try to teach them to do. So these images still exist and it doesn’t matter if you are shooting them analog or digital. It is about the image. The problem is those types of assignments aren’t given anymore. And when they are given the editing of them is very different. It’s just a different attitude. I can show you the work of some students that I’ve had and it is marvelous work. And some of it is digital and some are using Photoshop but it is done in way similar to analog, and Photoshop is used like a darkroom — it is not used to alter reality.

Q: Do you find that shooting one iconic image is more difficult than shooting multiple photos in journalistic way to tell a story?

A: Well you are never thinking “I’m going out today to shoot an iconic image!” You really are just hoping to shoot a good photograph. That is the most you can hope for. It is easy to make a good photograph, but it’s extremely hard, almost impossible, to make a great one. If it happens you are excited but you are never sure until you actually see an enlarged print. Digital photographers constantly check the back of the camera and they think they have the image. But you never really know if you have a good photograph until you enlarge it and see it in it’s proper scale. Sometimes I see people take a picture, look at the back of the camera and then walk away. Then the action happens and they miss the photograph. I tell my students to cover up or turn off the back of the camera and just do your photographs.

Q: Can you share a specific example of when you pushed your own limits?

A: I remember the first time I met Tiny. I went to Seattle to do a story on street kids with a writer from Life named Cheryl McCall. On Friday and Saturday night all the street kids went to place called the Monastery, which was a club. Minors weren’t allowed in but they would get in anyway. We waited outside. The kids that couldn’t get in or didn’t have enough money to get in would park their cars and have their own little party outside. A taxicab pulled up and these two little girls got out. They were very young teenagers. They were made up like they were playing dress-up with makeup and short skirts. They were dressed like seductive prostitutes. And one of these young girls was Tiny. I walked too directly and quickly toward her because I wanted to photograph her. She thought I was the police so she screamed and ran away. I asked everyone who she was and how I could find her. Her name was Tiny and she sometimes lived at home and sometimes lived on the street. The next day I went to her home and found her there with her mother and that was the beginning of our long saga over many years.

Q: Will you tell us about the Kickstarter project and your goals in revisiting Tiny?

A: Aperture is going to republish and update the book with more photographs in 2015. They are raising money at this point to do that. Our Kickstarter campaign is raising money to do a film about Tiny now and her ten children. It is also about their survival and their fight against poverty. It’s about what Tiny’s family’s life is like today and how her life has changed from the age of 13, when I met her, to 44, her age now. It’s a very powerful subject. We have such great access to her and her children. They are all very interesting characters. We will do something very special. I know we will.

We have visited her often since Streetwise. Martin Bell, my husband, has filmed her two other times over the past 30 years. We are going to continue that. We haven’t seen her in about nine years. We’ve talked to her on the phone a lot but haven’t actually gone out there to film her recently. I’ve met her ninth child but I’ve never met the tenth. Her children are beautiful and incredibly strong characters. I think it will be fascinating to see what their life is like. And there is always a drama taking place around Tiny. For example, one child can be in trouble with the law while another child can get thrown out of school, while another can be about to start a new job. You can always count on something happening.

Q: Can you talk about your relationship between your still images and the films that your husband shoots?

A: We work together in a very good and constructive way. It is very separate and at the same time, together. I’m not behind him taking a picture while he is shooting. I’m usually off somewhere else taking my photographs. We are helpful to each other. He will tell me if he thinks something is interesting and should be photographed and I’ll tell him if I see something that will work as part of the narrative of the film. We build the story together. And when we use voice over often we’ll make a list of the questions together that help tell the story. And we talk about our different observations. I think the experience I’ve had for so many years doing stories for magazines is very helpful. Film making and photography are very different. I would never even try to pick up a movie camera. The whole sequencing of movies is so different. With photography you are going from one image to one image. You are making a single image that conveys one feeling, one idea. Films are linear and you are thinking about how you are going to cut a sequence. I think film making is much more difficult and complex. Although Martin says great still pictures are hard to produce. I think the opposite.

Martin and I have a really good working relationship.

Q: You have a breadth of work that spans over 40 + years and there is always a common thread of reality and getting close and presenting that rawness. But how would you say your approach to you work has evolved?

A: I’m not sure it has changed that much. Except maybe technically I might know more now than when I began. Though I’m not really a technical photographer. I’m more intuitive. Maybe I have a bit more technical confidence. Maybe I know more about how far I can push and how far I shouldn’t push. Perhaps I know more what I’m looking for when I’m trying to make that iconic image (which I can’t exactly define). I’m still just trying to make powerful and truthful photographs — great photographs. Perhaps my standards are higher. I’m less satisfied with what I do. I want to go further. reach further. The photographers whose work I most respect are very thematic. Their pictures are always along the same line. And they have stuck to that line. I think it’s important. You must realize that you can’t be everything or do everything. But you have to know where you excel and who you are and stay with that and get better and better at it — and always realize that you’re only as good as the next photograph you take. You must always strive to be better.

Thank you for your time, Mary Ellen.

- Leica Internet Team

Learn about Mary Ellen Mark’s Kickstarter campaign “STREETWISE: Tiny Revisited.” Connect with Mary Ellen Mark on her website, Twitter and Facebook.