C/O Berlin pays tribute to the American photographer with this first global retrospective since her death in 2015. From her first photos to her major reportages in the United States and India, the exhibition retraces half a century of social photography.
Images that remain. This is what interested Mary Ellen Mark, producing images capable of lasting through time with an intact message, quite simply because true emotions do not age. From the 1960s, her first subjects of predictions took shape: the street, children, women, transvestites too, especially the marginalized. At the end of the 1970s, she photographed feminist demonstrations and those against the war in Vietnam, from which intrinsically committed views resulted, a commitment that would mark her work throughout her life. In black and white obviously, how could it be otherwise? There is so much going on in these frozen images that you have to take the time to look at them carefully. However, there is never any superfluous noise that would distract from the heart of the subject. Besides, it’s all in the framing: Mary Ellen Mark never crops her images or reworks them, “what’s the point?” she will say, and this sentence which has a particular flavor today where the photographic medium, reality and its diversions raise questions: “There is nothing more extraordinary than reality”.
Mary Ellen Mark photographs the invisibles of society: teenage mothers, the disabled, drug addicts, the sick, neglected children, but no one ever appears miserable, certainly because no one is in her eyes. At the end of the 1960s, she produced a reportage on a London hospital experimenting with a brand new program on patients addicted to heroin. Then came Ward 81 a few years later on a psychiatric hospital for women: the first reportage she produced without assignment, her “first baby” she would say. She lived with these patients for 36 days and each one will keep a place in her memory. In these photographs, sometimes of deep distress, Mark manages to capture moments of gentleness, like this patient with her body held close to a young man. Here again, the frontal images – such as the raw wounds that a woman suffered – take the subject head on and attempt to convey a certain condition of life in these closed places. This is also what she will do later with her images of pediatric care where she makes visible the childhood of those from whom she saw as damaged, as if to repair it if only a little.
Color is rare in Mark’s work. It is found almost exclusively in her images taken in India. A small space is devoted to her reportage on the prostitutes of Falkland Road in Bombay at the end of the 70s. Although Mark immediately found her subject, it took much longer for her to be accepted by these women. Who could possibly be interested in their condition? After a few years, Mark managed to integrate this closed environment and presents intimate scenes where banality is backed up by brutality. As is often the case, and here too, this is a strength of Mary Ellen Mark, she weaved as best she could a bond with these women. Mark sincerely loved her subjects and dedicated all her time to their lives which, she thought, were worth telling. Her longest project is Tiny, dedicated to this young girl she met in the early 80s during her reportage on street children in Seattle. This meeting of Mark with Erin Blackwell, nicknamed Tiny, marks the beginning of a long story: more than thirty years spent photographing Tiny, her pregnancies, her childbirths, her life successively with her ten children. Iconic images are born like Tiny in a black dress, gloves and veil in front of her eyes for Halloween, looking straight at the camera – always: Tiny defies life.
Mary Ellen Mark always carried several cameras around her neck and loved to experiment. To photograph one of the subjects that fascinated her, twins, Mark finally sets her sights on a 20×24 Polaroid that she discovered in 1995, technically demanding but the best way, she says, to “show how much they look alike. highlighting the subtle details that make them so different”. Intriguing double portraits, with staged poses, identical clothing and yet an authentic rendering. A technique that she also used for her famous Prom series where she immortalized young people before their prom in the 2000s, also in double portraits. These lighter themes seem to be a way for Mark to tour the social strata in the United States and their issues.
The circus people or Mother Teresa in India: if many of Mary Ellen Mark’s portraits are, as she imagined them, timeless, others, less famous, are just as powerful. There are these images of poverty in rural areas in the United States in the 90s. We observe a whole section of forgotten society, families with eight children, three generations living in the same room and young people for whom the right to dream was taken away: Mary Ellen Mark devoted her life to looking reality straight in the eye.
Noémie de Bellaigue
Mary Ellen Mark at C/O Berlin until January 18, 2023.