Mary Ellen Mark Photo Essays Africa

A world-renowned photographer and teacher discusses her latest book that explores the profound connections between humans and animals.

One of the most acclaimed and influential photographers of her generation, Mary Ellen Mark has achieved an almost legendary status through her impressive array of books, exhibitions and editorial work for magazines. Her photo-essays and portraits have appeared in such prestigious publications as LIFE, New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. For over four decades, she has traveled extensively to make pictures that reflect an abiding humanity, compassion, and empathy. Her images of our world’s diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. Her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, and brothels in Bombay, were the product of many years of diligent work in India. Her photo essay on runaway children in Seattle became the basis of the Academy Award nominated film STREETWISE, directed and photographed by her husband, Martin Bell.

Mary Ellen Mark recently received the Lifetime Achievement in Photography award from the George Eastman House and the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award from the World Photography Organisation. She has also received the Infinity Award for Journalism, the Cornell Capa Award, an Erna & Victor Hasselblad Foundation Grant, and a Walter Annenberg Grant for her book and exhibition project on America. Among her other awards are the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the Matrix Award for outstanding woman in the field of film/photography, and the Dr. Erich Salomon Award for outstanding merits in the field of journalistic photography. Mark was also presented with honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from her Alma Mater, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Arts; three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Photographer of the Year Award from the Friends of Photography; the World Press Award for Outstanding Body of Work Throughout the Years; the Victor Hasselblad Cover Award; two Robert F. Kennedy Awards; and the Creative Arts Award Citation for Photography at Brandeis University.

She has published eighteen books including Passport (Lustrum Press, 1974), Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Falkland Road (Knopf, 1981), Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity in Calcutta (Friends of Photography, 1985), The Photo Essay: Photographers at work (A Smithsonian series), Streetwise (second printing, Aperture, 1992), Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years (Bulfinch, 1991), Indian Circus (Chronicle, 1993 and Takarajimasha Inc., 1993), Portraits (Motta Fotografica, 1995 and Smithsonian, 1997), a Cry for Help (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey (Aperture, 1999), Mary Ellen Mark 55 (Phaidon, 2001), Photo Poche: Mary Ellen Mark (Nathan, 2002), Twins (Aperture, 2003), Exposure (Phaidon, 2005), Extraordinary Child (The National Museum of Iceland, 2007), Seen Behind the Scene (Phaidon, 2009), Prom (Getty, 2012) and Man and Beast (University of Texas Press, 2014.) Mark’s photographs have been exhibited worldwide.

She also acted as the associate producer of the major motion picture, AMERICAN HEART (1992), directed by Martin Bell. Her book, Exposure, is a large retrospective book published by Phaidon Press that showcases 134 of Mary Ellen’s best images, including both iconic and previously unpublished images.

Aside from her book and magazine work, Mark has photographed advertising campaigns for such prestigious clients as Barnes and Noble, British Levis, Coach Bags, Eileen Fisher, Hasselblad, Heineken, Keds, Mass Mutual, Nissan, and Patek Philippe.

Q: I’ve always admired your work. I think that you bring something special to photography. At your best, you capture the eternity in the moment. We are here to talk about “Man and Beast.” Personally I believe that you and I are on the same wavelength in that we agree that there is a commonality between humans and animals.

A: I’m glad to hear that. I sometimes wonder if it’s just my imagination.

Q: It’s definitely not. Now, of course, not everyone would agree with you on that, but I do. We are mammals. Certainly we have advantages that make us the dominant species but fundamentally we are of the animal kingdom and we share many characteristics. Evolution indicates that those old forms are in us and the very identity of other species is in our code. In a somewhat self-congratulatory way we like to refer to ourselves as homo sapiens which means wise man, although we aren’t always so wise as a species. The wisdom of the eons embodied in the animals is sometimes wiser than we and knows things that we can’t possibly imagine.

Anyway. To some extent this book, “Man and Beast” is kind of a retrospective. There are some older images here from the ’60s and ’70s shot in India and Mexico. How did you come up with this concept of identifying a theme that in some sense you had already done?

A: More than half of these pictures, especially the ones from Mexico, have never been published before. The early ones have been. I teach in Oaxaca and when I’m teaching I rarely photograph. I concentrate rather on helping the students with their work. Now and then I would stay a couple of days extra after the class and take pictures. So they weren’t really known. I’ve always thought that there was a common quality between India and Mexico and I wanted to somehow express that. I also wanted to use the title “Man and Beast” because I love animals. I’ve always loved animals.

Q: I agree with you. Unfortunately I have never been to India, but I have been to Mexico quite extensively. There is something about the relationship to the land and the animals. Do you agree?

A: Yes. And it’s the same in India.

Q: We have small farmers in the United States and we certainly have people with strong connections to animals, but it seems to be more of a cultural thing in these places. What do you think are the commonalities between India and Mexico are and how would you describe that?

A: I think it’s the special relationship between man and animal and between man and the land, for sure. But beyond that there is an ironic craziness that both countries possess. There’s never a dull moment and both countries have a very surreal quality.

Q: I agree. They are both lands of strange juxtapositions.

A: Bill Wittliff from the Wittliff Collections asked me to do a project with him and he is specifically interested in Mexico, so I thought that this would be a good opportunity to publish some of these pictures that I hadn’t published before and to connect them with images from India. I love dogs, and I always have a dog party every Christmas.

Q: Yes, I’ve read about your dog parties. It sounds great. I am a lifelong dog person. I’ve always said that dogs are the nicest people.

A: I love all kinds of animals, even snakes.

Q: I notice that all of these pictures are black-and-white.

A:  It’s my primary method.

Q: What do you feel is particularly compelling and meaningful about shooting in black-and-white?

A: I love the abstraction of it. I think it goes right to the heart of the content. I’m not saying that I don’t like color. There are a lot of fantastic color photographers out there. But it’s different and it makes you think differently about your subject.

Color is very difficult too. It might be more difficult because you have an extra element. But really I just see in black-and-white.

Q: Can you say something about your technique? And what kind of camera and lenses do you use?

A: I’m still primarily an analog photographer. I shoot with Kodak Tri-X film with all kinds of cameras and formats. I even use Polaroid and I have several Leica M6 cameras.

Q: The M6 is a wonderful camera.

A: I have a Monochrom that I got last year as well, but I haven’t had an opportunity to work with it yet because I’m still recovering from a broken shoulder.

Q: Oh my! Well I hope you’re feeling better soon. By the way what do you think is the main difference between shooting with an SLR and a rangefinder camera?

A: Even without autofocus I’m very fast with a rangefinder because it was my first camera. But I think you can be very fast with a “through the lens” camera too. But also the size difference is notable and you can use a much slower shutter speed with a rangefinder camera. The new Leica medium-format digital looks like it is very fast though.

Q: In taking a look at these pictures from the book it appears you have achieved a wide, smooth, natural tonal gradation. The book has been printed to a high standard and I’m very glad to see that.

A: The book was printed in China, but the separations are key. Of course the prints are important too. I have a fantastic printer, Chuck Kelton, and Bob Hennessey, who makes the separations, is also brilliant.

Q: Their excellence certainly shows. From a technical standpoint these images really stand out.

A: There’s no point in doing a book unless technically the prints look fantastic. Bob has done the separations for all of my books. He is amazing.

Q: To get my two cents in about the rangefinder versus single-lens reflex discussion: it seems to me that with an SLR you are looking at the world through the camera, but with a rangefinder camera you are looking at the world directly with your eyes, but by the way you have this device that you can use to put a frame around what you’re seeing. Existentially it’s kind of different.

A: What I love about the rangefinder is the surprise. I always feel that when I look at something I shot with a rangefinder I don’t really know what I’m going to get. And when the picture works it is a very pleasant surprise. And I’m fast with it. If you look back at a lot of the great street photographers you’ll notice that a lot of them use rangefinders and I think it’s because they’re so fast.

Q: When you’re shooting with one of your Leica M6 cameras which lenses do you use?

A: My three favorites are the 35 mm, 24 mm and 28 mm.

Q: Obviously one of them is wide and the other is on the verge of semi-wide, but they both can be called wide-angle lenses. What is about those focal lengths that you find so conducive to your particular kind of photography?

A: It’s just that you’re closer to your subjects and I like that the space and depth. I don’t use long lenses in my personal work. If you’re working in the studio in medium or large format, that’s a different story. I wouldn’t put a wide lens on there. But on the street or on location I tend to use a wider lens.

Q: What is there about being closer to your subjects?

A: You can use depth and space more effectively. That’s how I frame, with the background more in focus. It is a big part of the frame and image. Too much out of focus can be distracting. Most street photographers use lenses in the 24 mm to 35 mm range. Some brilliant photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson might use a 50 mm, but it’s very hard.

Q: Based on conversations with dozens of photojournalists and street photographers I’d say 35 mm is the ideal focal length for street photography. Now you made an interesting statement just now when you said that the background is in focus and is therefore less distracting. The current tendency or trend is to shoot at wide apertures and get a soft blurry background.

A: Well it all depends on how you frame it. Often with a longer lens the background can become visually closer to your subject and therefore it becomes more distracting.

Q: What were you trying to accomplish with this book and do you think that you succeeded?

A: I was trying to publish some of my pictures with animals and others that tried to capture the animalistic nature of man. I think I generally achieved these goals.

Q: You can see a lot of different elements in your photography. Somebody once said to me that your work is at the intersection of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus.

A: I get compared to Diane Arbus a lot and I think it’s only because we are both women. My work is very different than hers in concept, content, and technique.

Q: Yes, but there is a sense of irony and playfulness in both of your work. Her work is a lot darker, I think. I wouldn’t take it personally and I’m not saying it’s necessarily an accurate description but it does make you think. I’m looking at this picture of a light colored donkey with a dog perched happily on a saddle. It’s a charming picture.

A: It’s a caught moment. I took the picture because the dog really looks like he’s smiling.

Q: It’s a simple, straightforward picture but it has a certain transcendent quality. It puts you there. There is a certain “being there” reality to it that makes it, as I said before, eternity in the moment. How did you shoot that picture?

A: That was on a Leica in India. I just saw it. Sometimes you’re someplace and you just see something.

Q: Let’s look at these twin brothers from India.

A: It was taken in Calcutta at the circus.

Q. It is literally the man and the beast. It has an almost demonic quality to it.

A: It’s ironic. An Indian woman told me that this image was demeaning to Indians. I have no idea why but I thought it was a funny reaction. They were performers in the circus and they were dressed as chimps. They were on their way to perform and I liked it so I just grabbed the picture. That’s what’s great about a Leica — you can just grab it.

Q: I’m now looking at the Sleeping Dogs, Burning Ghat. Can you tell me something about it?

A: That’s just the way it looks on the ghats in Benares, India. There are sleeping dogs on a lot of the steps. There are a lot of wild dogs there also.

Q: The official name for them is “Pariah Dogs.”

A: You certainly don’t want to get bitten by one.

Q: What I really love about this picture is the contrast between the randomness of the animals and the geometric structure of the staircase. It’s kind of a visual and emotional dichotomy.

Q: Let’s talk about Child Acrobat with Two Children in Peacock Costumes.

A: That was just on their way to perform. It was very surreal.

Q: I like the fact that the background is in focus. It really works for this image,

A: I think I shot it with a 28 mm lens.

Q: What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: It’s impossible to describe that. You just see something and your brain says “That’s a photograph!” and then you take it. Then later you look at your sheets and find out if you were right or wrong. There’s just a trigger that goes off in your brain and you hope you made a great photograph.

Q: So it’s a spontaneous act?

A: Exactly. You know, when I teach I try to get my students that shoot digitally not to look at the back of their camera. Most of them shoot digitally and I want them to just wait to look at the images later. You never know if you have it or not until you enlarge it and see it in scale.

Q: Emily Dickinson asked her preceptor, “Does my poetry live?” How do you know when the picture lives?

A: You know after you enlarge it and it works; if it translated what you were thinking when you took it. When all of the right elements come together and it works, then you know.

Q. There’s one picture that really intrigues me. There are people in the water and the guy is floating near the shore, held in a kind of stretcher. What’s going on there?

A: It’s of the Burning Ghats of Benares, where bodies are prepared and taken to the fires to be burned.

Q: So that person isn’t alive?

A: Correct. It’s a very sacred place where they cremate bodies. Unless he’s a holy man and in that case he will be taken by boat out to the Ganges River and won’t be burned.

Q: And what is the animal connection in this photograph?

A: It’s the end of life. It’s something that we all face. It’s a very sad picture for me.

Q: In this other photo of two people in the water you don’t know where the bodies begin and the water ends. The tonal gradation is astounding.

A: That’s in a shrine in Mexico where twice a year they celebrate a Mexican saint. It’s like a baptism. It’s called Niño Fidencio. That place was really quite extraordinary. It was only possible to get that picture by going into the water myself.

Q: This is a picture that includes someone preening himself in a mirror.

A: That was in Calcutta at a boy’s home.

Q: The range of visual elements are stunning. It has such an emotional quality. What does it mean to you?

A: It was just a moment where the light was right. It was a peaceful moment in this home for orphan boys.

Q: You got some amazing depth of field there.

A: I’m eventually going to make a book on my pictures from Mother Teresa’s missions in Calcutta. I’ve got a lot of pictures from there.

Q: Finally let’s talk about this boy with a puppy.

A: That was shot with a 35 mm lens on a Leica. This is one of my favorite dog pictures. It was early morning in Rajasthan, India. It was kind of chilly; that’s why he has a shawl around him. He was just standing there with his puppies.

Q: What do you like most about this book?

A: It was a good chance to publish some of my pictures that haven’t been seen and to republish some older pictures like the elephant trainer and fit them all into some sort of theme. It was great to work with Bill and the people at the University of Texas Press who published the book. They make beautiful books. I really admire what they do and it was a really pleasant experience.

Thank you for your time, Mary Ellen!

– Leica Internet Team

View more of Mary Ellen’s work on her website, Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about her workshops in Iceland and New York City.

For the sake of convenience, we’ve presented this in a Q&A format but it was actually a conversation between our blog writer, Jason Schneider and Mary Ellen Mark.


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Leica Internet Team

Leica Internet Team

Tags:Leica M, Mary Ellen Mark

She brings to all her photographs an unflinching yet compassionate eye. In the midst of exotica or on the fringes of society, where she often chooses to be, she does not exaggerate the unavoidably alien, freakish qualities a less complex photographer would emphasize, but tries to find clues to what is familiar and human. Thus a picture of three Indian prostitutes solemnly, uncomfortably awaiting a man's decision becomes a poignant, harsher version of young girls at a dance. Mark says that ''Falkland Road,'' her 1981 book on the Bombay brothels ''was meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman.''

Her subject matter raises an old question about photojournalism: Do photographers exploit those less fortunate than themselves for the sake of their art? Mark herself simply asks whether the poor should be ignored; many have eagerly posed for her, she says, precisely because they wished to be noticed at last. And as Richard B. Stolley, who as managing editor of Life magazine assigned to Mark many of her most important stories, puts it, ''If she weren't such a good photographer, the charge would never arise.''

MARK ASSISTED HER HUSBAND, the film maker Martin Bell, on ''Streetwise,'' a documentary about homeless teen-agers she had photographed in Seattle. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. Her own honors include the University of Missouri's top award for a feature picture story (twice), the Page One Award, the Leica Medal of Excellence, the Canon Photo Essayist Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award (twice), the Philippe Halsman Award and numerous grants. She belongs on any list of top contemporary photojournalists with the likes of James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado and David Burnett. Stolley refers to her as ''one of the top three or four in the world'' and adds, ''she is probably the best - how can I put this without sounding sexist? - I don't know of another woman photojournalist as good as she is now.''

Photojournalism has recently scaled new heights of public esteem. Museums and galleries lavishly display pictures that were previously seen only in print. Films like ''Under Fire'' and ''Salvador'' set the photojournalist on center stage and biographies of past masters assure that the legendary glamour shines on.

Yet at a time when magazines are cutting back on photo essays in favor of twinkling pictures of media stars and token illustrations in text pieces, outlets for photojournalism are steadily diminishing. Mary Ellen Mark is one of the few photographers today whose stories have regularly appeared in such publications as Life, The Sunday Times of London, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Paris-Match, Stern and Time. And in a magazine forum that sometimes seems to be split between hardship and glitz, she has an offbeat and distinctive vision of both. She does essays on Ethiopian refugees or the elderly in Miami; then, to earn a living, she takes advertising and publicity stills for films and countless celebrity portraits.

Among photographers she admires, Mark mentions Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer who helped raise decadence to couturier status. But she mentions Diane Arbus most often. ''No matter who Arbus photographed,'' Mark says, ''she could somehow make them look a bit odd, which is nice. I like that,'' To call Arbus's images ''a bit odd'' is rather like calling Dali's a trifle neurotic; she does add that she's fascinated by Arbus's ''freaks, misfits, monsters.'' Mark is no slouch at discerning oddity in her own work, but her photographs have never been infected by Arbus's profound and contagious malice.

No one, Mark says, has ever matched W. Eugene Smith's photo essays of the 1950's and 60's. While Arbus gave us permission to look hard at precisely those people our mothers had warned us not to stare at, Smith mapped the ground for concerned photographers' reports on life's casualties and efforts to care for them. Since her 1970 Look magazine essay on an English methadone clinic - shocking at the time - Mary Ellen Mark has combined the two photographic traditions in a manner all her own.

Where Smith made heroes of country doctors and Arbus made witches of housewives, Mark finds mainly strangers and survivors. She shares Smith's guarded optimism about the human capacity to help and Arbus's willingness to see her subjects unmasked, yet has neither Smith's moral outrage nor Arbus's moral outrageousness. Resolutely apolitical, Mark does not warn about freaks or hector for reform. Her complicated imagery suits a cynical, visually weary audience, which no longer expects either its hope or its exotica to come unalloyed. Mary Ellen Mark is our resident 35-millimeter anthropologist, sending back revelations from the fringes of what is called normal life.

''I'm just interested in people on the edges,'' she says. ''I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. I'm always on their side. I find them more human maybe. I care about them more. . . . What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.''

FOR 10 YEARS, WHENEVER MARY ELLEN Mark tried to photograph on Falkland Road in Bombay, she was pelted with insults and garbage. Brothels jostle each other the length of the street; women and transvestites stand in cages displaying their charms; pickpockets, drunks and customers saunter by and stare.

Finally, in 1978, Mark braved Falkland Road day after day until a few women grew curious.

One key to her success as a photojournalist is her ability to win the trust of people who do not trust easily. Slowly, slowly, she made friends. In the end, while she photographed the prostitutes' lovemaking and ablutions, they took her under their protection. ''One time when the police came,'' Mark recalls, ''they hid me under the bed. Then there was one customer who just kept harassing me. They finally sort of pushed him down the stairs.''

''Falkland Road,'' the result of Mark's persistence in Bombay, is a book that is intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh. The sumptuous color is anomalous in the career of a woman whose three other books - ''Passport,'' a collection of portraits from around the world (1974); ''Ward 81,'' about women in a mental hospital (1979), and ''Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta,'' (1985) - have been in black and white.

She claims not to be very technical - ''Machines hate me,'' she says - but has learned the more elaborate lighting techniques required for color portraits and is as capable with her 2 1/4 Rollei SLX as with the 35-millimeter Leica and Nikon. Gifted with an eccentric visual imagination, she likes unlikely angles, perilous balances and large empty spaces in which an isolated figure carries the emotional charge of an exclamation mark. She defines relationships through the spaces that occur between people and frequently sets tensions humming by juxtaposing bony angles and perfect curves or calling on background figures to comment on foreground action. These sophisticated maneuvers render her subjects strange but not alien and surprising but not improbable, thereby advancing her conviction of the splendid oddness of life.

Mary Ellen Mark grew up in suburban Philadelphia and now lives in New York City in a sunny loft populated by a large gathering of the gods, potentates and animals of India in paint and wood. She has a soft voice, an eager smile and long black hair, often worn in a single braid. Her eyes are so dark and narrow that from a distance they appear totally black, as if they were nothing but apertures for light. She speaks of having been a willful child, her parents much older, her father often ill. She grew into a teen-ager with two major ambitions: to become the lead cheerleader and be popular with boys. (She did, and she was.) After taking a B.F.A. in painting and art history and deciding she wasn't good enough to be a painter, Mark took an M.A. in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, having chosen photography almost at random and fallen in love with the camera the moment she held one in her hand.

''From the very first night, that was it,'' she says. ''It was weird. I became obsessed by it. I knew immediately it would be my life's work. I knew I had a chance of being good at it.'' Coming from an unhappy home, she wanted more than anything to be self-sufficient; the camera was her ticket to independence. ''I wanted to travel from the beginning. As a kid, I used to dream about airplanes, before I ever flew in one. I really knew when I started photographing I wanted it to be a way of knowing different cultures, not just in other countries but in this country too, and I knew I wanted to enter other lives. I knew I wanted to be a voyeur.''

She found her passion immediately and her subjects soon, but her deep commitment to stories about people on the edge only began in 1976, on Ward 81. ''For years I'd planned to go live in a mental hospital,'' she says. ''I wanted to see if I could feel something of what it was like to be set aside from society.'' No one was willing to fund such a project, so she traveled to the Oregon State Hospital at her own expense to live for 36 days in the state's only locked ward for women. ''I think I was interested because my father had several nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized several times,'' she says. ''But beyond that, in third grade we took a class trip to a mental hospital. I never forgot that. It was fascinating to me. Had I ever had a scientific mind I would have loved being a psychiatrist.''

A PHOTOJOURNALIST needs access, not always easy to gain out on the fringes. Mary Ellen Mark's care for those who teeter on the edge is instinctive, deep, almost reckless -recently she stopped her car on the way to an assignment, dashed out and pressed some money on a dazed man in the rain - and the transparency of her passion tends to win her amazing amounts of assistance. In Calcutta, she photographed Mother Teresa's mission houses but could not get to Mother Teresa herself until she met a Jesuit priest and told him her problem. He said, ''Come to the motherhouse tomorrow. I promise you'll get permission.'' She went and found him preaching a sermon on the importance of photography.

The standard approach to photojournalism in photography schools is that the photographer must turn in a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Mary Ellen Mark says she has never approached a story in the approved manner. ''I just go into it trying to get good pictures. ''

There is a new wave of photojournalists, people like Gilles Peress and Alex Webb, whose highly personal reportage evinces a distrust of the conventional notion of objectivity in the media. The new photojournalism is sometimes ambiguous or determinedly artistic. Mark's work, however, keeps the traditional faith that pictures convey information and that art is most useful when it serves communication.

A good picture, she says, ''shouldn't need an explanation, emotionally at least. It says something directly to you. . . . What you look for in a picture is a metaphor, something that means something more, that makes you think about things you've seen or thought about.'' Perhaps her own sense of affinity reveals connections other people would not immediately see. On Ward 81 she found ''not that much difference between the women's behavior and mine and my friends'. Maybe they were too sensitive and couldn't cope.'' Of autism she says, ''What you look for is a symbol of something in everyone's life.''

She never preconceives the story, which she trusts to reveal its secrets and details if given enough time. ''I like to be taken by surprise,'' she says, an attitude that leaves her open to the magical disjunctions of life as it goes by. ''You find it just by sitting there.'' On Falkland Road, a curtain hid a prostitute and her customer, but the woman's head and arms had escaped past the edge of the drape. ''There's a guy with her behind the curtain, and his arm comes out. There are three arms. It's just there. It presents itself.''

Yet it's not just there except for someone who fully expects that moments she cannot foresee will be laden with visual riches and meaning. At these moments, decisions must be made fast. ''I always think: 'What does this picture mean? What's the best place to put my camera? Do I have anything extra in the picture, things in the background that will distract? Am I in the basic position that will give the essential things for this picture but not too much? What is the best way to show the elements, to make a good picture, to be graphic?' ''

Mark's courting of chance involves a lot of what might be called creative waiting around. It requires remaining in high gear through long periods of low-gear action. She doesn't believe in setting up shots, but once in a great while she gives surprise a helping hand. When Marlon Brando had his head shaved for ''Apocalypse Now,'' it occurred to her she'd like to take a picture of him with a large local beetle on his pate. ''If I told him to put a beetle on his head, he'd say no, but if he happened to put one on himself. . . .'' So she brought along a jar of beetles and casually set it down nearby. Lo and behold. . . .

''I have a real good sense of predicting what will happen,'' Mark says, ''from having done so many documentary stories. When you're really involved in a story, you almost become psychic about what to look for. So much is luck: you turn one corner and something happens. But you do get intuitions about the people you're shooting. You get a sense of where to be at the right time. You learn it. It has to do with absolute concentration.'' Edward Steichen once said something to the effect that if the same photographer got lucky all the time, it couldn't be just luck.

She never photographs anyone who refuses (''I'm too shy''), and she claims to be equally good at sensing when she can shoot and when she should not. Recently, she was photographing Robert, an autistic child, when the boy's eyes suddenly rolled up and his arms flailed like malfunctioning machinery: an epileptic seizure. ''I didn't shoot,'' says Mark. ''It was very dramatic, but I just couldn't. I felt terrible for the mother and grandmother, and for the boy, too. He knew I was there, and he didn't like it. If anything, I'm too meek. If anything, I'm overcautious about not shooting.''

Yet she steels herself to take pictures when that seems almost impossible. ''Somehow in Ethiopia I thought, 'How can I live with myself? People are dying. . . .' But you feel you have to do it. I think that's the compensation for yourself: I'm recording an event that's important, an event that people should see. We tell ourselves that all the time. . . . There's something shameless about me. And I think all documentry photographers that actually do come back with those pictures - there's something shameless about all of us.''

MARK SHOOTS A lot (''Film is cheap''), as many as 200 rolls on a story, which she cuts down to about 40 pictures before an editor whittles away all but 8 or 10. One day, Amy, an autistic teen-ager, was being massaged. Amy seldom speaks but communicates in emotionally charged cries. Terrified, she let out little animal yelps of fear, repeatedly leaped up to kiss her mother for reassurance, finally calmed down under the therapist's hands. Then she lay still, relaxing into a rare peace. By the time she sat up again, this time with a little roar of pleasure, Mark had taken six rolls. ''I was thinking about how she feels about human contact,'' Mark says. Only one frame worked.

''I shoot a lot because I'm not sure I've got it. I'm always surprised. I never know if it will come out. . . . Sometimes you feel you have a picture, sometimes you're right. Sometimes you're surprised when things you thought weren't good are.''

She sends her negatives to her printer, then edits down, searching for tiny differences: a more desperate expression for a picture of a burial, or the one portrait out of 12 that seems to sum up the feeling at a private school, a place that had ''something surreal and strange, such an abundance, and these girls were so serious and sad. . . .'' Inviting chance, embracing the bizarre, Mark often spots some wayward touch of surrealism that temporarily deranges ordinary expectations of the world's order.

Out on a story, she says, ''I have to really like the people I'm photographing. I may not like what's happening to them, but I have to believe there's something positive about them if I'm going to be involved a long time.'' The prostitutes were ''fantastic women. They were survivors.'' The autistic children are ''so spiritual and beautiful. . . .''

When she's photographing, there's very little room for what you might call a life. In fact, the rest of life pales quite hopelessly by comparison.

This spring she had to stop work on the autism project to teach a workshop in India. She was not eager to teach -''I feel these are the years to take pictures'' - and was worn out from overwork, so she announced that she wouldn't take a camera to India. ''Well, maybe one Leica, in case I get access to this one autism center in Ahmadabad. It would be a reprieve.''

IN MARY ELLEN MARK'S best pictures, the intensity of her relationship with her subjects translates onto film in full force. When she fails, it is usually because she has mistaken oddity for meaning, or found an emotion too strong for the form. The wonder is how often the expression matches the timbre of the event.

In the most tragic stories, Mark seeks deep involvements almost intuitively. ''When you see people in these extreme situations,'' she says, ''you can deal with it when you get to know them, the individual personalities. When you come every day and see what's happening to them, the severity, the sickness - which is extremely difficult to take - kind of gets lost, because you're thinking of them as people.''

Involvement has it dangers. ''You have to be careful if you're involved and it breaks you up. If their tragedy is so great it makes you cry, how does that make them feel? You train yourself to be strong. . . . And the camera is a distancing mechanism.'' When she left Ethiopia, she was so devastated she broke down in tears and immediately felt both embarrassed and guilty. After all, she points out, she was the one who was free to walk out. ''You feel guilty because these people have really given you something incredible. No photographer can do anything without people letting them take something from them.''

Many photographers have reported that they do not feel fear or horror while they are photographing; the emotions wait to close in afterward. There are personal costs for this kind of commitment; Mark says it's given her a skin problem. ''You think all the time about the people you've left. You never forget any person that meant anything to you. It's a lot of people to live with.''

This is all the harder for Mark because she cherishes no illusions that her photographs will make life easier for the Ethiopians or anyone else. ''Any photographer who thinks that they're going to change the world has an inflated ego,'' she says. ''But photography does open up people's vistas and their world, it does make them more understanding and tolerant.'' Pause. ''Some people,'' she says.

MUCH OF MARK'S work centers on women. Although she says she would not label herself a feminist, she adds, ''I certainly realize it's more difficult being a woman. I've tried to show that, the positive and negative things about being a woman. . . . I just feel I'm better with women. . . . I feel I can say something deeper. Not that I don't like men; I do. But I think I'll get something more superficial with men because I don't understand them at the core.''

Women have had an important place in the history of photography, but few besides Margaret Bourke-White have achieved major billing as photojournalists. In the last dozen years or so, women have moved into the profession in force, many inspired by the early and singular example of Mary Ellen Mark. Mark herself says the profession remains difficult for women for many reasons. ''I don't see how a woman in documentary photography could have children,'' she says. ''I think it's a very difficult thing to do to raise a family, and I have enormous respect for people who do it. I'd hate to do something like that and not be good at it. It's for a long time.''

''This kind of work,'' she says, ''sometimes it's a disease that gets into the blood.'' Recently she remarked, with a little laugh, that she was going to quit the profession and become an antiques dealer. A day later, she was happy and slightly crazed, preparing to go to Australia to shoot, then to the Soviet Union. Soon, soon, she will get to work again in an autism treatment center. ''The drive is stronger than I am,'' Mark confesses. ''Fortunately or unfortunately, I suppose I'm connected to my camera for the rest of my life.''

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