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Matinee: 'Documentary Photographer Mary Ellen Mark' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 March 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the twenty-third in our series of Saturday matinees today: Documentary Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, a presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum streamed live on Nov. 5, 2013.

The full presentation runs almost an hour and a half but that includes half an hour of questions and answers. She spends the first hour reviewing her work, including stills from three books and three short films shown in their entirety.

Mary Ellen Mark considers herself a street photographer. If you can do street photography, she says, you can do anything.

In the age when magazines needed photos (which are over, she observes), she used magazine assignments like grants to photograph her own work, pitching ideas and convincing editors to send her all over the world.

Young people today have to make their own assignments, she said. But these days it's challenging to make images that aren't just decorative or illustrations. It isn't trendy to make images that are powerful because of their content. But don't be discouraged. Fight for what you believe in, she urges us.

"The most important thing about a photograph is its content," she says.

She finds it a lot harder to do street photography today because there are so many people with smartphones on the street. And if that crowd doesn't elbow you out, people themselves are more sensitive to being photographed because they know their photo will end up on the Internet.

She discusses these issues as she goes through a slide show of her books.

The first book of images, Exposure, is a retrospective of her work. It includes many of her assignments and some of her longer projects, like her interest in circuses and twins.

For the second book, Prom, she attended 12 proms in four years, using a 20x24 Polaroid camera. She loved the camera, finding lighting the subject much like making a print in the darkroom. She used 16 strobes to get enough depth of field with the 800mm lens at f64. And at $200 a sheet, she didn't do many test shots.

She quickly goes through a third book, Man and Beast, about the relationship between man and animals taken in India and Mexico and the "strange similarities" between the two countries. Her elephant story will give you a chuckle.

And almost all those photos are in black and white, with the exception of some images of the brothels of Bombay. Although she has used it throughout her career, color is much more difficult, she admits. Students, she observes, often shoot black and white images in color rather than color images. She sees in black and white and her subjects work better in black and white, she says.

She's shot with lots of cameras and formats, including Hasselblad and Mamiya medium format cameras, plus 35mm Leicas.

And, of course, they are all film cameras. She has nothing against digital cameras and even owns one, a monochrome one. It's a different mindset. But you can do good work in either film or digital, she emphasizes. "It's all in your eye and your mind," she notes.

But she does drawn the line at smartphone pictures. It isn't photography. It's visual social media. Photography is harder than that. It takes years to develop a point of view and technique.

Her films, she reveals, were shot digitally, primarily because she had to use very light equipment to get into the places her crew was shooting.

And we learn all that in the question and answer period, so it's worth sticking it out to the end. After seeing her work, you'll want more anyway.

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