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.