Mary Ellen Mark – American Odyssey

Amanda and her Cousin, Amy Valese, North Carolina, 1990


An image that embodies a favourite theme of hers: children acting like adults.

‘Sometimes pictures happen as you’re leaving a shoot,’ Mark says. She had been photographing a family for a story on violent children and was about to leave when the girl pulled out a cigarette and began to smoke it. ‘The mother was there, and didn’t mind.’ – Mark

Swamped as we are with a flood of images, films and products from the United States, it would seem that the American legend has been affecting us for a long time.
Each of us carries within them, however laughably or shamefully, their very own American dream.
An omen of the insidious fascination that America exercises upon us can be found in the Declaration of Independence: “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
The New World against the Old. Happiness as a right. One that everyone here seems to demand. Mary Ellen Mark has been crisscrossing the United States for more than 30 years, and everywhere we sense the same quest, be it latent or manifest, for legitimate happiness–at any price it would seem. Often, in her images, while the quest is palpable, actually acceding to the “American way of life” is something else entirely. The photographer transcribes little Tiny’s comments, “I want to be rich, very rich… to live on a ranch with lots of horses, my favorite animal… I’ll have at least three yachts… diamonds and jewelry, and lots of stuff like that”. Eighteen years later: five children by as many fathers, welfare… and she hasn’t stopped hoping. She still has the right to search, to repeat the offense, to make another attempt.
While Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs don’t probe the imposture of the American dream, they do expose it by unveiling the other side of the picture.
The American dream borders on the pathetic here. Poverty and distress mingle with the glitter. Like this little black girl, a carnival mermaid, whose illusions seem to be hopelessly confined to a flea-bitten bathroom, between a broomstick and a roll of toilet paper.
The abandoned, the prostitutes, the alienated, the gigolos, the bodybuilders are strewn throughout photographs that paint a fascinating composite portrait of a limping, disenchanted America. An obese woman in a ball-gown with a miniature dog licking her nose. Family photos proudly displayed in slum apartments. A provocative, overly made-up little girl in a bikini, smoking, while her feet dangle in a pool…
This American odyssey is more of a human adventure than an expedition.
When Mary Ellen Mark’s gaze rests upon someone, it obviously carries the respect that she manifests towards those who cross her path. Her images make no concessions, yet it is most certainly in their very crudeness that their delicacy lies. Pitiless (for all that, she never succumbs to gratuitous cynicism), this photographer is not without compassion. The time that she dedicated to little Tiny, to the prostitutes in Bombay, as to most of her subjects, betrays the profound humanity that animates her. Mary Ellen Mark is, without a doubt, a woman of images. As she herself says, it is because she is a woman that she can achieve this consent, this abandonment of self, this abdication of modesty, that would, incontestably, be refused to a man’s gaze. It is, too, through her capacity to blend in, integrate into and be accepted by the different milieus that she shoots. Neither moralist, nor partial, she knows how to create an effect without being overly sentimental.
Shooting photographs is always related to confrontation, to hostage-taking, to violence inflicted upon the other, for the one-and-one relationship is betrayed by the presence of the camera. This photographer feeds insatiably off the real, and yet, at no time does she behave like a predator. She says that she begins shooting as soon as she approaches her subjects. No stolen images. Those who agree to place themselves before her lens know that they are compromising themselves. No abuse, no illusions, no tricks.
For Mary Ellen Mark, the Indian whore is as important as the rich American. Humanity bursts out of and spills over from each of her images. Disturbing, off-putting, poignant, moving or ridiculous. That is the path she takes to make differences meet, to bridge gaps. Without ever falling into the trap of clichés or the picturesque. In a way, she demonstrates an immediate comprehension of the other, whatever their culture, lifestyle, religion, or condition… She knows how to capture and portray the expression of relentless determination to live in her subjects, whom she always apprehends in their social environment (circus, brothel, care facility…). And in her photographs, she knows how to reveal the instants of grace and discover the cruel paradoxes, to stigmatize laughable or pathetic social behavior, to show how everyone, through their attitude, tends to exist through the images they reflect. And, inexorably, what grabs and moves us is the other. The other is, for each of us, like another ephemeral self. And if Mary Ellen Mark’s images sometimes provoke unease, fascination, compassion or mockery, if they engender turmoil, it is because they are a mirror the photographer holds up to each of us. For in the end, Mary Ellen Mark’s photographic odyssey leads us to perceive a shred of the human condition. – Caroline Bénichou

Santa Claus at lunch, New York City, 1963

Pro-Vietnam War parade, New York City, 1968

Easter Parade, New York City, 1969

Mary Frances in the tub, Ward 81, Salem, Oregon, 1976

Older couple in a bar, New York City, 1977

“Rat” and Mike with a gun, Seattle, Washington, 1983

Aryan Nations, Hayden Lake, Idaho, 1986

Father and daughter, Aryan Nations, Hayden Lake, Idaho 1986

Dance Class, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1986

Jennifer, Tiffany, and Carrie, Portsmouth, Ohio, 1989

Leprosy Patient with her Nurse, National Hansen's Research Center, Carville, LA, 1990

Jeff Gilam and Stacy Spivey, McKee, Kentucky, 1990

Retired rodeo performers, Leakey, Texas, 1991

Vera Antinoro, Rhoda Camporato, and Murray Goldman, Luigi’s Italian American Club, Miami, Florida, 1993

Sherry Collins Eckert with Madame Butterfly, Afton, Missouri, 1995

National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, Big and Beautiful New Year's Eve party, Long Island, New York, 1996

Etta James and Strappy, Riverside, California, 1997

Gay Pride Parade, New York City, 1997

Gay Pride Parade, New York City, 1997

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One Response to Mary Ellen Mark – American Odyssey

  1. Jacob Freeze says:

    What a great post! How the heck did I (almost) totally miss Mary Ellen Mark for all these years? Thanks so much for this beautiful selection of her work!

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