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Pro Perspectives: Mary Ellen Mark


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BY PhotoVideoEDU staff November 01, 2009 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark talks to PhotoVideoEDU about where she finds inspiration, what she looks for in an assistant, and why she has an enduring love for film.


  • Documentary and portrait photographer



  • University of Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts, 1962
  • Annenberg School for Communication, 1964

PhotoVideoEDU: Who inspires you?

Mary Ellen Mark: Federico Fellini. I think he was, for me, the greatest filmmaker, and his imagery and . . . I wouldn’t even think I’m a fraction of as good as he is, because he’s brilliant. His subject matter, the kind of humor and irony in his subject matter . . . there’s sadness . . . humanity. I think that’s why I became interested in the circus, because I saw his film Clowns. There are photographers that are very inspiring too—people like Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Robert Frank.

PhotoVideoEDU: Is there something that hooks you when you’re speaking about inspiring photographers?

Mary Ellen Mark: No, because I think you have to be your own person. I think you have to learn from looking at great pictures, but I don’t want to be like anyone. I want to be like me.

PhotoVideoEDU: What advice or suggestions do you have for aspiring photographers?

Mary Ellen Mark: Well, to do what you believe in. Have a look at reality before you decide to turn towards gimmicky stuff. Have a look at reality first, give that a chance, because to me, that’s where it’s at . . . but to be your own person and aspire to be special because of who you are, not because you like somebody else.

PhotoVideoEDU: Do you shoot film, digital, or both?

Mary Ellen Mark: I shoot film only. I love having a negative. We do, however, scan all of the prints for the digital library in my studio.

PhotoVideoEDU: What qualities of film are attractive to you?

Mary Ellen Mark:
Well, I’ve worked with Tri-X for years, so I know it. Sometimes I think what goes wrong with people that shoot digitally [is that they look at the LCD and think],  "got the image," and they move on. Well, you never really know if you’ve got the image. You look once: "Oh, that looks OK; I’ll finish." But sometimes I’m in a situation, I’ll work it and check that for pictures, and I think that with film you do that because you’re never sure. You could make a mistake. You think, "Oh, that’s great." And then you look at [the picture] closely instead of in that little box in your camera, and it’s not such a good picture, you know? I don’t know. It’s just a different way of working. It is. I just like the quality of film and also I like to make prints and I sell prints. That’s partially how I live. And I just think that prints made with film have a whole other look. I’m not about to become a digital photographer.

PhotoVideoEDU: What do you expect an assistant to know?

Mary Ellen Mark: Well, I think an assistant should be technical. He should know the lights and the camera. To be inventive. To love light. To love lighting and to have a real sense of light and lighting. And, of course, to have a great personality.

PhotoVideoEDU: How would you describe your photography business?

Mary Ellen Mark: I’m a portrait photographer and a documentary photographer.

PhotoVideoEDU: Do you think that a formal education in photography is valuable?

Mary Ellen Mark: A formal education in the sense of learning all kinds of technique is definitely valuable. I think that good technique just helps you tell your story better.

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