My friend Corinne recently blogged about how having a three-year-old (or as I call her, a threenager) unleashed a torrent of self-reflection and compassion. When I think of compassion, I think of Mother Teresa and Corinne did, too, sharing a poem by her within the post. This free association game goes one step further for me, from Mother Teresa to Mary Ellen Mark and, more specifically, Mark’s photos of Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in Calcutta, India, which I present to you today. Mary Ellen Mark is our artist of the week.
Mary Ellen Mark was sent to India to document Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity by Life magazine in 1979. As David Featherstone relates in the introduction to Untitled 39: Mother Teresa, a Friends of Photography book by Mark, “Mother Teresa, the order’s founder and leader, had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the photographs were to accompany a feature article on the woman.
“While the photographs published in Life successfully portrayed both the poverty of the patients and the needed service provided by the clinics, the experience in Calcutta only whetted Mark’s visual appetite for a more complete study. She felt a need to go back to complete the photographic document she knew remained unresolved. By July she had made the necessary arrangements, and in January 1981 she returned to Calcutta for a two-month stay. Photographs from both of these intensive periods of work are the subject of this book.”
Mary Ellen Mark is best known for documenting life on the fringes of society. In 1987, she said, “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.” She has done just that through studies of the mentally ill in Ward 81, runaway children in Seattle, and prostitutes in Bombay, India.
As you can see above, most of Mary Ellen Mark’s work has been in black and white. She also primarily uses film.
In the 1980s, she did undertake a project in color, documenting prostitutes in Bombay, India. “The difficulty with color is to go beyond the fact that it’s color, to have it be not just a colorful picture but really be a picture about something. It’s difficult. So often color gets caught up in color, and it becomes merely decorative,” she’s said.
In a 2010 interview, Mark updated her stance on photographing just the edges of society, stating that “I’m just interested in what makes a photograph. It doesn’t have to be someone on the fringes. Yesterday, I was teaching in Woodstock and there was a state fair, and I was just walking around and looking at people. I’m just interested in reality.”
She also shared her perspective on the biggest change since she started photographing in the 1960s: “When I started out, it was considered very wrong to change an image. There were scandals if someone inserted a sky into a war picture or something. Now it’s all about that. When I look at magazines and see a portrait, I assume it’s been digitally altered. I’m not putting down Photoshop. When it’s used like that, it’s just not a photograph, but an illustration.”
This year, when announcing Mark’s latest recognition for “Outstanding Contribution for Photography,” Dave Geffin reported for Fstoppers that, “Never do I feel [Mark] exploits the trials and tribulations of her often troubled subjects. Rather, she is side by side with them on their journeys. She injects a subtlety, style and grace into her work that leaves you compelled to continue the photographic journey she takes you on, to learn more about the subjects being photographed, the issues going on with the lives of the people she is photographing, and the way in which she takes you on the journey.”
To bring this post full circle, Mary Ellen Mark’s photographic approach sounds like compassion to me, what about you?
You know, before now, I’ve never been a huge fan of Mary Ellen Mark’s work because of how direct and gritty it can be. Through the writing of this post, however, I have developed a new respect and appreciation for what she does.
What do you think of Mary Ellen Mark’s work—love, hate, or indifferent—and why?
For more about Mary Ellen Mark and her work, please visit her website. There you can see the complete contents of all of her books as well as several exhibitions. She is also accepting portrait commissions in front of her 20×24 Polaroid camera.
P.S. Because I’m always interested in the veracity of quotes found on the Internet, I also looked up Mother Teresa’s “Do It Anyway” poem and found this. Hers is an adaptation of an original work by Dr. Kent M. Keith called “The Paradoxical Commandments.”