Friday, May 29, 2015

The Honest Camera: Mary Ellen Mark 1940-2015.

I'm saddened by the loss of one of America's great photographers.  Mary Ellen Mark died this week at the age of 75.  In September of 2013, I had the good fortune to see a lecture by Mary Ellen Mark as part of the University of Michigan's Penny Stamps School of Art and Design  Lecture Series.  Early on, I appreciated her gritty images of people in unfortunate circumstances.  While she was a documentary photographer, she also seemed to have a way of getting close to her subjects.While sometimes they are grim reminders of unpleasant situations -- she showed that all was not right with the world, as in the series of photographs of poor families on Ohio that appeared in Life magazine in 1989. Along the lines of  Lewis Hine, she was able to give voices to those without a voice via her photography.
This image belongs right up there with those of Walker Evans
 on the sharecroppers of Hale Co., Alabama.

My recollection of her lecture at the Michigan Theater was that this diminutive woman with her twin braids projected a humble persona, yet was confident and fully engaged in the presentation of her work, -- and  a master of her craft.  She told us how she worked on some of her more famous series, and I think her compassion allowed her to get such amazing images.

Later, I attended the Q&A session, and listed to the questions and her answers. Many of the people in the audience were college students, and it was interesting seeing the contrast of Mary Ellen, steeped in the tradition of using film, and these young beginners, who grew up in the digital age.  One young woman asked why she didn't get people to smile in her photos.  Mary Ellen gave a great response to what some might regard as an inane question.  She took the time to talk about how making someone smile removes the authenticity of the moment, much less a  a forced appearance.  I thought about that for quite a while, and I have had others ask why I don't smile for a "selfie."  What the hell am I smiling about?    No, Mary Ellen was right -- a grin should be a natural moment, not a fiction.    She answered a lot of questions and I admired her gentle yet firm demeanor.

She also told us that she felt very lucky to be able to do her photography at a time when the printed page was THE THING.  Many of us have probably seen some of her documentary work without realizing that she was the photographer.  She was an accomplished photographer, and that is still an understatement.

With Mary Ellen Mark, It was not not about the personality, the camera, or the gallery.  It was about telling an honest story with her camera.  She was able to become part of the surroundings, and yet not seeming to affect the subjects.  That's a hell of a talent -- and to come away with images that move us as well.  I am glad that I had the chance to see her in 2013.  Rest in peace, Mary Ellen.  Your photographs will speak for you - always.


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful, I'll look for her work.

Jim Grey said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful remembrance of this photographer and her work. How wonderful that you got to attend her lecture.

GreenComotion said...

I learned something today, so thanks for that.
Have a Beautiful Day!
Peace :)