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March 04, 2004

Mary Ellen Mark at the MFA, Jeff Wall Interview and Photograph

First note: someone passed on to me this link to an interview with contemporary photographer Jeff Wall, but unfortunately, I lost the email after bookmarking the link. So whoever passed it on, thanks. It's a good interview, if a bit contentious, as Wall (like Philip Lorca di Corcia, to whom he's often compared) resists interpretations of his work, preferring to focus on the process.

Wall's work really needs to be seen large, and lighted the way he intends it...on the web and the printed page, it clearly loses a lot. Some of his early work, in particular, looks quite ordinary when scaled down, and given the glut of "alienation art" that's flooded contemporary culture the last decade, not all of it's aged well. But with that said, some of his more recent work is amazing, in particular the photograph below, which is meant to give form to the scene from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man where "the main character rigs 1396 lightbulbs in his basement room in Harlem in order to make the point that black men are invisible in Amercian society" (from PDN feature "The Great Wall", February 2004).

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Jeff Wall, After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Preface

According to the PDN article, the set for this photograph was three years in the making, and it's worth tracking down the magazine to see the photograph in a larger size with more detail, even though it still represents a compromise. (Wall: "[My photographs] have characteristics that can't be seen when they are shrunk into a book...they really do change")

Switching gears, I saw Mary Ellen Mark speak at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston tonight, and it was a packed house...first photographer lecture I've attended to actually sell out. She ran through a predictable but nevertheless gripping slide show of many of her career highlights, then devoted the last 20 to 30 minutes to her most recent book, Twins, and a short film by her husband on the same subject(s).

Talks by famous photographers are always fun, but their ability to inspire me and linger in the memory for more than a couple of days is a factor of 1) the quality of the photography 2) the personality of the photographer in engaging the audience 3) the ability of the photographer to speak for the images and herself, and provide insights such that her work gains added meaning and resonance 4) the question and answer period, when the relationship between audience and photographer loosens up and a more open-ended exchange becomes possible.

Not every outstanding and/or famous photographer can excel in all these areas, understandably so...some artists just don't feel comfortable discussing their work in detail, while others open up only in certain areas. One of the best speakers I saw last year was Bruce Davidson...perhaps it was because his talk came at a time when a good deal of his work was being reissued (meaning he'd had time to reflect on all his work over the last 40 years when putting together the reissued volumes), but he had a great sense of humor, tons of outstanding photography with substantial cultural as well as aesthetic value, and a high level of comfort with his audience overall. He played the part of world-class photographer, witness to history, celebrity, and funny and warm mentor all at once, and the result was about as successful a talk as could be imagined.

Mary Ellen Mark was gracious, witty, and entertaining, though I was left more earthbound by her talk. She displayed a *lot* of outstanding documentary photography and portraiture from the 1960s all the way to the present. In particular, her early portraits of London drug addicts for Look Magazine, her Ward 81 series of portraits of female mental health patients, and her color photographs of prostitutes in India from the 1970s displayed a strong empathy with her subjects, and wonderful compositions and light. I remember seeing the film Streetwise and being riveted many years ago, and her portraits of Seattle street youth from the 1980s remain as potent as ever. Mark's use of black and white overall remains a strong constant in the outstanding technical quality of her photographs, though the little color she's done is excellent as well and consistent with her vision.

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Mary Ellen Mark, South Beach, Miami, Florida, USA 1979

I have to admit, though, that Mark's recent work hasn't really blown me away, particularly the Twins work, which seemed both more obvious in its whimsy and less engaging. It's easy to be hating, I suppose, when a photographer breaks into the big time and American Photo declares Mark the "greatest living woman photographer", and other inflated comparisons are made to Walker Evans and Diane Arbus. But I don't begrudge Mark her celebrity or her success...her persona in public is quite down to earth, and I don't see the falseness or the glossy, fawning celebrity worship and commercial compromises of an Annie Leibovitz, say. And the fact that she spent so much of her talk on her early work (with very little time given to her celebrity portraiture) was a refreshing indication that she continues to recognize the importance of that work and hasn't left it behind.

Mark really didn't have that much to say, though, beyond discussions of individual images, spending little time providing context on the arc of her career. The overall impact of the work, to me, was that of a lot of breathtaking individual images from locations around the globe and the United States, and some strong series...clearly the work of a classicist in portraiture and photography generally (she obliquely indicated her disapproval of more contemporary conceptual portraiture)...but i still didn't feel that she helped me pin down with confidence what her legacy is, or what defines an image of hers, or how she connects to the legacy of classic and contemporary portraiture (beyond the most obvious connections). Despite many broad themes (the poor, the troubled, circuses, American eccentrics), the most specific vibe I could pick up was that of "empathetic, classically styled black and white documentary portraiture", which is rather broad.

Mark did show an admirable attachment to her photographic subjects, calling out their many names, and occasionally sharing a story about how she won the confidence of someone. Her next project is a comprehensive, 250+ image retrospective of her work, and perhaps at that point, it will be easier for dunces like me to assess her legacy. She does have many, many fans, and there are not too many photographers who have the respect of the mainstream the way she does, even though she's not quite the household name like Leibovitz, McCurry or Cartier Bresson.

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Comments

I attended this lecture as well (was that you on my left?), and must congratulate you on your thoughtful, balanced, thorough and well-written review. Her billing as "the most influential female photographer ever" earned a definite eye-roll from me, but I agree that her down-to-earth manner went far to dispell that overly extravagant introduction.

While I agree that there was not a great amount of insight to be gained about her or her methods, I would add this: she mentioned that in several of her series - particularly with the Indian Prostitutes and with the Ward 81 series - she would return to the scene day after day, until she gradually became a familiar sight and earned the confidences and trust of her subjects which enabled her to get the striking images she showed.

John

Posted by: John Sidlo at Mar 4, 2004 3:55:51 PM

Thanks for the recap Robert -- I am disappointed that I missed the show. Your comments about photographers-as-public-speakers made me think of the few I'd had the chance to experience myself over the past year or two: Bruce Davidson, Steve McCurry, Eugene Richards, William Wegman -- the first three being favorites of mine -- and all of them varying widely on their ability to engage/captivate/compel in front of a crowd.

But it made me think of something else:
Years ago, I was lucky enough to land in a writing class with the late George Higgins, a crime writer whose novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was made into a great movie. Anyway, he was talking about how writers provide generally poor interviews. Audiences are often amazed that someone insightful and eloquent on the page can be so clumsy in person... and Higgins' response is "of course they are!" -- writers spend endless hours on their own, in their own world, creating their own people, etc... so it's a real challenge for them to interact in the same articulate and comfortable way in person. And I was wondering if that might apply to photographers. I suppose it depends on the type of work one does...

I would imagine that the photographer who engages their subjects closely -- like Bruce Davidson -- might do better than someone like Garry Winogrand. Just a theory...

Posted by: Andrew Miller at Mar 5, 2004 8:21:31 AM

I enjoyed reading your remarks about Mary Ellen. She was my favorite photographer, and my photography school encouraged me to contact her. I worked with her for about a year, and I continued to work with her on the Twins book.

I can tell you that she is very generous and funny in lectures, but there's nothing that can replace spending time with a photographer and seeing how they work. Mary Ellen continues to be a huge influence on me. Her newer work is different than her older stuff... she's experimenting with more lights, bigger cameras.. but I would argue that the soul of her pictures, the wry humor-and the feeling of intimacy-her hallmarks.. are still present in every photograph. What makes her amazing is her originality-she has an amazing vision and is unfaltering in her drive to realise it.

I will also be interested in seeing her retrospective book. I think you did a great review of the lecture by the way. Thanks!

Posted by: Wendy Maybury at Jul 13, 2005 11:29:34 PM

Hi there,

I haven't been to the lecture, unfortunately (I'm kind of on the other side of the ocean) but I really liked your review.
I completely agree with your comments on Mark's latest work. Though I have only recently discovered her work, I find the twins really the weakest - and easiest - statement of her oeuvre. Her other series give me a very ambiguous feeling. I don't really know if I like it actually, but the controversy attracks me a lot. Ofcourse, there is no doubt that the aesthetic quality of her work is mindblowing. Though she seems to easely cliché'ify (I don't know how else to put it, I'm clearly not a native english speaker, my appologies) her subjects. For instance, the work she did with the mexican circus (http://www.maryellenmark.com/) is very sexually tainted (ex. the man with the elephant's trunk between his legs) and though that is a big aspect of the circus, there is a kind of violence in the way she imposes that cliché onto her subject that bothers me. And the whole series on the twins confirms, for me, that suspicion. Two of a kind is funny, and easely photographable, easy to be found "weird". I have kind of the same feeling about the portraits of "different aspects of female beauty" of Tanyth Berkely (aka ugly women, I'm sorry but really .. it's almost an insult to those women to call it patronisingly "different") who will be in the Fall photography showcase at the MoMA. Absolutely stunning work.. but a bit easy if you ask me...
Intrested in you thoughts!
ps: amazing blog! I put you in my bookmarks

Posted by: Alexandra at Sep 2, 2007 9:50:36 AM

if many enamour of Mary Ellen Mark by his personality and physical beauty excellent pictures had a very professional technical ......

Posted by: viagra online at May 25, 2010 4:28:16 PM

Mark really didn't have that much to say, though, beyond discussions of individual images, spending little time providing context on the arc of her career. The overall impact of the work, to me, was that of a lot of breathtaking individual images from locations around the globe and the United States, and some strong series...clearly the work of a classicist in portraiture and photography generally (she obliquely indicated her disapproval of more contemporary conceptual portraiture)...but i still didn't feel that she helped me pin down with confidence what her legacy is, or what defines an image of hers, or how she connects to the legacy of classic and contemporary portraiture (beyond the most obvious connections).
Thanks for the recap Robert -- I am disappointed that I missed the show. Your comments about photographers-as-public-speakers made me think of the few I'd had the chance to experience myself over the past year or two: Bruce Davidson, Steve McCurry, Eugene Richards, William Wegman -- the first three being favorites of mine -- and all of them varying widely on their ability to engage/captivate/compel in front of a crowd.

Posted by: Tote Bags at Nov 2, 2010 11:40:36 PM