On Her Mark With A Camera

Danny Lipford CBS/The Early Show

Mary Ellen Mark is in constant demand to shoot glamour pics of celebrities. But she is ambivalent about them.

On the other hand, she is proud of her pictures of a homeless family in California.

In fact, Mary Ellen Mark got famous for taking pictures, all over the world, of people she calls "the unfamous," reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner.

Says Mark, "They'll allow you to see their lives while they just go on with their lives... I do prefer photographing people that aren't famous, because I feel I can get closer to them, and I can make photographs that are intimate."

Every year, Mary Ellen Mark teaches photography in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the hilly slums around the city. The "unfamous" open their lives to her.

"I'm showing what their lives are like through my pictures," she says. "And I suppose I want the people that look at my pictures to enter that world... With people that aren't well-known, I think often the attention really means something to them, because no one has paid attention to them... They would be the forgotten people."

She was invited to a birthday party, along with several of her students.

"When the kids came running down with their umbrellas, I thought that was mainly just a picture to give the family. I thought, 'I want to take a really sweet picture of your kids and have another picture to give the family."

But these are not your average snapshots. Mark takes edgy pictures, pictures of people on the edge of society.

Says she, "I look for something always...that's either ironic or it's funny or it's sad or a twist."

Mark says she no longer recognizes the high school head cheerleader she was in 1957.

"I don't at all," she says. "I probably wouldn't like myself now, if I met myself as a teen-ager."

Mary Ellen Mark considers herself a collector of strange images. For many years, she photographed the circus, because "it's fantasy, it's theatre, it's strange, it's funny, it's tragic. It's all the things that interest me."

In many of her photographs, there are juxtapositions where animals take on the roles of humans.

"I think that's something that I see in animals...that sort of anthropomorphic quality," she says. But she really has her eye out for emotion.

"I'm always looking for emotional pictures, too. I'm looking for pictures that evoke emotion, that touch me," she explains.

During her photography workshops in Mexico, Mark encourages her students to look for pictures that touch them.

"It could be New York, it could be Bombay, anywhere," she says. "I try to have them find stories, situations. I don't want to give them an assignment, because one of the more difficult things about photography is to find your own projects, to find what you want to do."

She pushes her students to take the risk, dare to move in and really say something about the people an places they photograph, the way she does.

"Photography is an intrusive act," says Mark. "I personally feel that it's worth taking the picture. It's worth it."

Occasionally, she establishes long-term relationships with her subjects. In 1983, Life magazine sent Mark to Seattle to photograph street kids. She met 12-year-old prostitute Erin Blackwell, nicknamed Tiny. She only appears once in the Life spread but emerges as an important character in an Academy Award-nominated documentary called Streetwise, directed the following year by Mark's husband, filmmaker Martin Bell.

Tiny has remained in touch. Over the years, Mark has photographed her again and again.

Does Mark do that because she feels a specific responsibility?

"It's not a sense of responsibility," she replies. "I wish I could say that, and then I'd be, like, saintly, or something like that. It's because it's interesting, it's fascinating, so in a way it's selfish, because it's fascinating."

What she means is work like that which is on display in an exhibition called American Odyssey, making its way around the U.S. by way of Philadelphia, Fort Wayne, New York City, and San Francisco. Mary Ellen Mark took almost all of the photographs on assignment for magazines like Life or Look, now out of business. Today, if she wants them published, she's got to do it herself, in a book, not a magazine.

"They don't want to publish the pictures of the unfamous...so it's more and more difficult...to find ways of publishing that kind of work, that's not dealing with the rich and the famous, and celebrity and what not," Mark explains.

Her latest book, like her latest exhibit, is titled Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey, 1963-1999.

So she takes celebrity portraits, because that's what magazines hire her to do. Somebody else might look at them and see that Mary Ellen Mark "edge." But she regards them with very mixed feelings.

"People that are famous [are] very protective of who they are," she says. "I mean, I understand why, because they have an image that they have to control."

She does like some of her celebrity portraits, including one of director Federico Fellini, one of her first.

"I try and make it like what could approach a great portrait," she explains. "But, you know, to crack a veneer takes time. You usually don't have time."

For instance, she had 20 minutes with Hillary Clinton for the April 3 issue of New York magazine.

At 60, Mary Ellen Mark is convinced that if photography can grant immortality, hers will bestow it on the unfamous.

"That's why I became a photographer," says Mark, "to make very intimate pictures, to show people things they haven't sen before, to be able to...engage people and to make images that are not like everybody else's images...to see the world in a most personal way. That's what interests me. That's my passion."
For more about Mary Ellen Mark, including photo galleries, go to www.maryellenmark.com.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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