Nearly half a century after her own prom night, Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, the filmmaker Martin Bell, went to 13 proms across the United States from 2006 to 2009 for their project “Prom.”
It’s not every day you get to hang out with a living legend of the photographic world and watch her do what she does best. That’s exactly what we were fortunate enough to do when we spent a day in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park with an icon of documentary photography, Mary Ellen Mark.
Substantial exhibitions of the work of Nan Goldin, Massimo Vitali and Antonin Kratochvil are the major highlights, and the three artists will also talk about their work, with Goldin appearing in a unique conversation with Sally Mann. In addition the festival will feature “Master’s Talks” and exhibitions by Christopher Anderson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ashley Gilbertson, David Liitschwager, Steve McCurry, Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell, as well as a special exhibition of George Steinmetz photographs hung from trees in downtown Charlottesville.
Street Shooter - An Interview with Mary Ellen Mark (1987)
Her most memorable work documents the lives of the dispossessed; those deprived by birth of the rights and amenities most of us take for granted, touch her. By Janis Bultman, Darkroom Photography, Jan-Feb Issue, 1987 It was the early Sixties. Mar
It does take a tool on you, and it's not something you ever forget. The people you've worked with, if they've meant something to you, are going to live with you forever. You also feel a tremendous amount of guilt because you've taken something from them. They've given you something great, and how can you ever repay them?
To me a documentary photographer and a photojournalist are pretty much the same thing. If I have to make a distinction, I'm more a documentary photographer--I don't think of myself as a photo-essayist in the sense that I always consider a magazine layout when I'm working. To be honest with you, I always try to think of the specific pictures. What's important to me is to make strong, individual pictures.
AMERICANSUBURB X: THEORY: “Mary Ellen Mark – 25 Years (1990)”:
Mary Ellen Mark is a photographer who believes that her strongest essay will be her next one. In a sense, all her work is one journey to that “best” story, which she may never reach or let herself acknowledge. She works with an edge, a haunting dissatisfaction: Could the pictures be better? What is important? Does she have it? Has she gotten to the core? Modest by nature, she uses the word perhaps a lot and the phrase “I was lucky” a great deal. But the success of her career is the result of more than luck – rather, it’s a knowing rush toward the unknown.
In addition to Mary Ellen Mark, the project features new work by Sylvia Plachy as well as Dawoud Bey, Jeff Dunas, David Eustace, Eric Ogden and emerging talents Marla Rutherford, Anna Mia Davidson, Joe Fornabaio, Eric McNatt and Richard Renaldi.
“When you’re working on a film, it’s almost like photographing paintings at a museum,” says Mary Ellen Mark, now 68 and dressed entirely in black, with twin braids over her shoulders. “You’re photographing somebody else’s world. I just try and interpret it and make it real, and make it what the actors are about, what the director is about, and what the film is about.”
Mary Ellen Mark has the rare ability to make her empathy visible. I believe, but cannot prove, that this is rooted in how she connects to her subjects. The photographic artifact is proof of that connection. This is not rooted in photographic skill or artistry—Avedon did not have it, nor does Penn, and I very much admire their work. Robert Bergman does, as did Diane Arbus.
Working for Mary Ellen was a rich experience on at least two levels: First, by expecting serious attention to the work at hand she made me a better printer (and a better photographer). Second is the not insignificant pleasure of working with good photographs.
Recently the publisher Damiani released a new edition of Mary Ellen Mark’s 1979 book Ward 81
On April 26, Mary Ellen Mark and her entourage of assistants set up a makeshift photo studio in a small room next to the school’s gymnasium. Mark is working on a three-year project called “Prom.” Charlottesville High was the seventh of 12 schools she is photographing.
Next weekend, Mark will speak at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph here, where her Charlottesville photos will be on display.
“Prom is a slice of Americana for me,” Mark said. “You learn about a culture and how different racial groups bring their own style to prom.”
Check it out here.