Photographer Interviews

Mary Ellen Mark: On Portraiture and the Moment

September 3, 2015

In her 40-year career, pioneering photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark made numerous portraits of celebrities, artists, film directors and the ordinary people whose lives she documented intimately. In the months before her death on May 25, she continued her teaching and worked on two books, which will be published this fall by Aperture. In Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment, she distilled some of the advice that she shared with her students over the years about working with portrait subjects. Part of Aperture’s Photography Workshop Series, Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment features 70 of Mark’s portraits and a lot of inspiration.

“Let things happen”

When I teach, I often arrange for my students to make portraits of people. I once sent a student to photograph a woman executive who is quite a put-together person. I warned the student, “She’s a formal person. Make a formal portrait of her—a beautiful, but formal, portrait.” No one, not the most experienced portrait photographer, would be able to take a great candid picture of her. (Also, a candid portrait takes a lot more time.) It’s not a good idea to try to ask people to behave in ways that don’t seem natural for them. Work with what you have, with who your subject is, and make decisions based on that. Consider the background, what looks right. Each person is different, and the background is an individual thing, as are decisions about whether to move closer or pull back, seated or standing, formal or casual. The picture’s about the person. It’s not about you. You have to think about what’s best for them, even though you’re still shooting it from your perspective.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get what you need. I might suggest what the subject should wear, but I wouldn’t ask them to leap in the air or lie down in the grass because of a preconceived idea that I had. I dislike those kinds of contrived pictures. I’m not trying to impose my own ideas as much as I am trying to figure out how to work with what’s there.

If I’m going to a location, I often try to get there a day ahead and think about how I want to shoot it. You should have an idea of what you want before the person steps into the picture. You can always seat the subject in nice light in a corner and see what happens. I much prefer working on location to working in the studio. I like to have a sense of a person’s belongings, a context to place them in, and also a sense of space and depth.

Sometimes portraits just happen, like when the Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, came to his door dressed like this for a Premiere magazine story about old and famous cowboys. I didn’t expect him to be in costume. His house was modern, but he was still living the part of the Lone Ranger. He was difficult and paranoid. No matter what I did to put him at ease or how many times I said I was a big fan, he refused to remove the mask. So I went with it. I asked him to sit on the leather couch behind the Lone Ranger statue on the coffee table because it was just perfect.

I took this picture of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on an assignment. The magazine was very specific. They wanted a picture of [ventriloquist and actor] Edgar Bergen but not with the dummy, not with Charlie. I went to his house, and he was very polite and sweet. I started photographing him sitting down, but he was nervous and the picture wasn’t working. He was visibly uncomfortable, as a lot of people are when being photographed. Even for a performer like him, the camera is an object in your face. I’m very uncomfortable in front of a camera. This is always something to keep in mind.

His son, Chris, suggested, “Why don’t you have him get Charlie? Then he’ll relax.” So Chris went and got the suitcase and put it in the hallway. Edgar Bergen sat down right there, unpacking Charlie. I would never have thought to set this up. There’s something about letting people do what comes naturally. No matter how hard you try to set up or control a portrait, sometimes there’s nothing better than allowing spontaneity in the session. I happened to be in the hallway when this was happening. Luckily, I got just a couple of frames before the moment was over.

But it’s not that I thought, “I got it,” and stopped shooting. I took more pictures after that, but they just weren’t as good as this one. That’s not always the case, but this was the best picture in the end. It says it all.

“Elevate the subject”

What I’m always trying to do is to make a picture that goes beyond a story. I want every picture to be iconic (which is, of course, impossible). I want to elevate the subject beyond the moment and circumstance. I think in terms of individual images rather than the photo essay. For me, photography is about making one great image, one frame.

This image was shot on assignment for Fortune magazine for a story on urban and rural poverty. It’s very hard to photograph poverty—how do you photograph poverty in a way that hasn’t been done before? It’s easy to make a good picture of poverty but it’s truly challenging to make a great one. There are so many famous photographers and great images that have come before, like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. The subject matter comes with its own visual legacy. I suppose the same thing could be said of portraiture or any other genre. The point is, you can’t let the legacy paralyze you. You must be your own person and contribute to the legacy. Don’t worry about style and separating yourself from others shooting the same subject matter too much; the pictures will happen by shooting from your own personal point of view. Worry more about getting a great picture.

When I went into this house, I was struck by how the family used an old refrigerator as a closet to store things in. When I saw the boy lying there, I opened the refrigerator door. I wanted to include that detail in the picture. If the door had been closed, there would have just been a refrigerator next to a bed. But with it open, you still know it’s a refrigerator but you also see it’s a closet and know something more about how this family lives. You have to look for the details; be attuned to what strikes you, and use it to communicate. The closet-refrigerator still amazes me.

On Connecting With Subjects

A lot of people ask me how I create such a sense of intimacy in my photographs. That is an impossible question to answer. You are who you are. Sometimes I watch photographers act in a way that’s meant to draw out a subject and help them get pictures. They’re being friendly, asking questions, but it’s because they want pictures. There’s no real interest; it’s an act. I can see right through that and so can the subject.

I think you basically need to be shooting something or someone because they interest you; then, a relationship develops naturally. I don’t know if I’d call it intimacy—sometimes it is. It speaks to a particular kind of relationship between photographer and subject.

On Editing

If you want to be a photographer, it’s important to learn how to edit your work. It is one of the most difficult things to do. To be a great editor, you need to be ruthless about cutting pictures that almost work, pictures that are not quite good enough because the expression is off or the moment isn’t there. “Almost” and “not quite” are not good enough. You have to separate yourself from the subject and only consider the picture on its own merits. Would you put the picture in a frame on the wall? Will that picture live on its own?

It can be easier to learn to edit by working with other people’s photographs— you’re not attached to the subject in the same way and have no memory of the moment. You only think about the finished picture. Editing is really just a matter of learning how to recognize what works in the frame and what doesn’t— what you like in the frame and what you don’t like. The more you edit, the easier it comes to you.

I learned to be a good editor through teaching. I not only pick out the students’ best pictures, but have to be ready to discuss why I’ve selected them and what the students could do to improve as photographers.

Related: Obituary: Mary Ellen Mark, Pioneering Photojournalist, 75

End Frame: Remembering Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark: Photographs from Mexico and India

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