In India six-year-old girls are sold by their fathers to traveling circuses for four-year stints for a sum that will feed their families for a year. One of these girls, trained to perform as a "plastic lady," appears on the cover of the catalog for photographer Mary Ellen Mark's mid-career exhibition, which is on international tour and is currently at the Chicago Cultural Center. The unnamed girl stares out intently, with her little puppy "Sweety" nestled between her cheek and her heel.
Inside the catalog, Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, is a shot of the driven, award-winning artist from her 1957 high school yearbook. Posing with her megaphone, the cheerleader from Cheltenham High looks more strained than her subject from the Great Raj Kamal Circus.
Mark, now 52, is soon heading back to India to work on a film about the circus performers. "I want to be a voice for the unfamous," she says. Her subjects include runaways in Seattle, lepers in Louisiana, glue addicts in Sudan, mental patients in China, a hydrocephalic girl in Italy, and the homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. "Those are the people who interest me. Whether it's a guy in Miami Beach who goes to a dance or it's someone who's dying in Ethiopia, they're the unfamous people I care about. I feel a certain purity in them that's real, and I want to document their lives."
Mark finds one charge about her work especially exasperating. "I'm always surprised when people say if you're taking pictures of people who aren't privileged, that it's somehow exploitive. That I don't understand. What are you supposed to do? Are you only supposed to take pictures of the privileged? Therefore that's not exploitive? Where do people get off saying that you're not allowed to photograph people who aren't famous? Tell me why that's exploitive. I don't get it. It's beyond my understanding."
Mark bridles at comparisons with the late Diane Arbus, a photographer vilified by some critics as a voyeur. "Why do people do that?" she wonders. "It's really interesting. I think people say that because we're both women. You don't hear that about a man being influenced by Diane Arbus."
Mark's defenders also take pains to deny parallels. A New Yorker critic claims that Mark "is not suspiciously voyeuristic and is definitely not "slumming."' Critic Vicki Goldberg writes that Mark's photographs "have never been infected by Arbus's profound and contagious malice." Photographer Gregory Heisler says Mark's work "lacks the freak-show futility that sometimes blinkered Diane Arbus." And Marianne Fulton, who wrote the catalog essay in Mark's book, testifies that Mark is "not a cool observer of the aberrant."
"When I first came to New York," Mark says, "one of my first magazine jobs was to photograph a convent for maimed nuns. It was a great assignment." She also covered women's liberation demonstrations and contributed to Ms. magazine, though she says, "I don't really think of myself as political. I've never really gone out and said, I'm a feminist." Starting with Alice's Restaurant in 1967, Mark has found steady work shooting stills for movies.
On assignment for Look in Rome in 1969, she photographed on the set of Fellini Satyricon. Then she shot Francois Truffaut, before continuing to London to shoot a Look story headlined "What the English Are Doing About Heroin." In 1971 she worked on Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Mark says her motive was to get access to the women's block of the mental hospital where the movie was being made. Five years later she returned and produced her compelling book Ward 81.
"My work is very much about content," she says. "It's not about any kind of deep philosophy." However, she once told Vicki Goldberg that Ward 81 might have been inspired by a third-grade class trip to a mental hospital, as well as her father's numerous nervous breakdowns.
"I don't know who I am as a person," Mark admits. "I just hope I've been able to make some powerful images after working all these years. I don't know why I do this." But then she gives an answer. "You do this because it's the only thing you can do, and there's no choice or chance to do anything else. Photography is an obsession for me."
She finds it easier to explain the intent of her work. "What I'm trying to do is to make photographs that are universally understood, whether in China or Russia or America--photographs that cross cultural lines," she says. "The things that interest me in different cultures are all those things I can find parallels for in my own culture."
Mark put a shot of two Turkish girls peering out of a portal on the cover of Passport, her first book of photographs. "It could have been taken on Ellis Island," she wrote in 1974. "The same kind of feeling, the beginning of a big adventure. I could never think of traveling someplace without my camera. . . . I'd like to see every place in the world."
Unfortunately, the magazines she once depended on have cut back on her kind of in-depth photojournalism. "Advertisers want funny and pleasant stuff," she says. "They want things that aren't going to frighten people and depress them, because we're going through a very frightening and depressing time. So it makes it very, very difficult for photographers like myself.
"Why can't a magazine just believe in me and let me do what I want to do?" she sighs. "You feel you've paid your dues, all these years, and you just want someone to say, 'Hey, you're really good at what you do--go off and do it.' I feel that I'm at the prime of my photographic talent. I'm a better photographer now than I ever was, and I want the chance to continue with my work. I feel deprived. I'm not, like, feeling sorry for myself. I'm just stating a fact. It's so frustrating.
"You feel your life is ticking away and you could be out there making all these amazing images. I think of all those amazing opportunities. I feel I don't want life to be over yet. I want more, more."
The exhibit Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, featuring 125 black-and-white prints, is at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, through September 27; hours are 9 to 7 Monday through Thursday, 9 to 6 Friday, 9 to 5 Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday. Call 346-3278. Mark will give a free slide lecture at the center at 2 on Saturday, September 12. She will autograph copies of her book, which costs $35, afterward.
The Richard Gray Gallery, 620 N. Michigan, has 28 platinum prints from Mark's "Indian Circus" series on display through September 26. Hours are 10 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday; call 642-8877.
Some of Mark's prints will also be offered by dealers at this weekend's third annual Chicago Photographic Print Fair, at the Congress Hotel, 520 S. Michigan. Hours are 6 to 9 Friday, 10 to 6 Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday. Fair passes are $7-$15; call 549-1553 or 708-328-6994.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Ellen Mark/Library.