In a photograph titled “Ward 81”, a woman sits on a bed. She is young, a teenager. She sits cross-legged and wears her clothes and hair like a teenager would. The wall behind this teenage girl is covered in pictures. The pictures, magazine cutouts, are taped to the wall and some of the edges have been carefully rounded with scissors. There are pictures of animals and a picture of a tree. Below a picture of the Mona Lisa the name BRENDA is written in marker. In this room that could belong to any teenager, the walls are strangely close. The bed is pushed up to the radiator and the metal headboard is too white and plain. The young woman’s eyes are blank—one eye tilts toward her nose. Her left arm is outstretched bearing the evidence of self-inflicted wounds and on the wall above the radiator, also written in marker, are the words, “I wish to die.”
This photograph was taken by Mary Ellen Mark, who died on May 25. Mark was adamant that her work be called documentary photography. “I’m a documentary photographer,” she told Bomb magazine in 1989. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to be; that’s where my heart and soul is.” The word “document,” when applied to photographs, conveys the sense of proof, evidence, testimony. A document is an affirmation of the subject being documented — a proof of that subject’s existence, if nothing else. A documentary photograph says, “here is the object or person that existed when this photograph was taken.”
Mary Ellen Mark liked to photograph people who dwelled on society’s fringes: street kids, prostitutes, junkies, the homeless, women who were mentally ill (like the women who lived within the confines of Ward 81) — the survivors, the “unlucky ones.” Every one of her photographs could list the same caption: “I exist.” Mary Ellen Mark said her main interest was reality. Documenting the marginal and the lost was, for Mark, to show the world as it really is. Mark wanted to bring her subjects out of the shadows, to make their existence real. The foreword of Ward 81 is a story by Milos Foreman:
I once heard a story about two women in a small town in Czechoslovakia. At the end of World War II…each woman took to the streets in euphoria and attacked the retreating German tanks, yelling abuse and throwing stones. The Germans fired on the first woman and killed her instantly. The second woman, for reasons unknown, was ignored by the fleeing army. Screaming hysterically, she was led away by her compatriots and taken to a mental institution …
The woman who had been killed became a hero. Her photograph made the front pages of the newspapers … The woman who had been ignored spent five years in a mental institution. As far as I know no one ever bothered to photograph her.
In Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs, the women of Ward 81 cannot be ignored. Each woman’s presence fills the frame. But if you look close enough, you will see the presence of Mary Ellen Mark there, too. Mark didn’t believe in the total objectivity of a portrait, in which the photographer is supposedly absent. A subject is always aware of the person taking the picture, Mark would say. You can sense the presence of the photographer in the angle of a photo, and in the posing of the subject. Sometimes, you can actually see the photographer’s image reflected in her subject’s gaze.
Mary Ellen Mark lived with her subjects, figuratively and often actually. A former head cheerleader from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Mark always felt an affinity for faraway lands and outliers. She wanted to travel, go places, see the world’s truth. In the late ‘70s, Mark spent months lingering around cafes and brothels for her series Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, striking up conversations, dodging insults, until “slowly, very slowly,” Mark once wrote, “I began to make friends.” In 1976, Mark confined herself to the Oregon State Hospital for 36 days in what was then the state’s only a maximum-security asylum for women. ”I think I was interested because my father had several nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized several times,” she told The New York Times years later. Or maybe, she said, it was the fascinating class trip to a mental hospital she had taken in the third grade. ”For years I’d planned to go live in a mental hospital,” she said. ”I wanted to see if I could feel something of what it was like to be set aside from society.”
Mary Ellen Mark photographed monsters. They were not monsters in the beastly or demonic sense but rather, in the way Mary Shelley conceived her monster in Frankenstein, a creature both inside and outside humanity. The word “monstrar”, just like the word “docere” (from which “document” comes) means ‘to show’. The abnormality of the monster is itself a form of proof, a window onto reality. Mary Ellen Mark photographed monsters of all sorts but she was especially interested in women: autistic women, elderly women, women in the circus, women on the street, women who have been institutionalized for madness, women who have lost limbs to leprosy, homeless girls, girls with cancer, prostitutes. Even her photographs of Mother Teresa put the nun in the same context as the sick and poor in her care. Teresa was just another a woman living at the extreme outer limits of civilization.
Mark’s women are never, at first glance, what they seem. Often, their monstrosities are nearly invisible. Mark’s genius was to capture the subtlety of a woman’s monstrosity – the errant scar, the odd slump of a body, the too-happy smile, the worldly-wise and cynical stare. On a Fulbright scholarship in 1965, Mark took a photo called “Beautiful Emine posing, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965”. Mark considered the photo her first real picture. In “Beautiful Emine posing,” a lovely young girl wears a frilly dress and a big bow in her hair. Emine looks at the camera straight on, two fingers on her right cheek, two hands on her thigh. She knows that she is beautiful. But Emine’s hair is just a little too messy and her white shoes are dirty. On a man, there is nothing scandalous about dirty shoe. On a woman, a dirty shoe is a story. Spending time with the people living in Ward 81, Mary Ellen Mark didn’t find that much difference between the inmates’ behavior and her own. “Maybe they were too sensitive,” she said, “and couldn’t cope.” Even a woman’s sensitivity could be a declaration of her freakishness.
In Frankenstein, the monster wants nothing more than to be a part of humanity. Denied this right, he asks his maker for just one thing: another monster with whom to share his monstrous life. This desire to belong is once again “proof” — belonging connects us to reality, becomes the evidence that we are alive. Looked at like this, there is not much difference between the desire to be head cheerleader and the desire to escape to the streets. There is the same battle with loneliness, the same longing to have a home. Though Mark’s subjects were marginalized from mainstream society, they always seemed to find each other. The prostitutes of Bombay, the street kids, and the women of Ward 81 made little communities among themselves. The monstrosities that held these people apart from the mainstream, from their families – sometimes from themselves – connected them to kindred spirits. In the text for Ward 81, the writer Karen Folger Jacobs (who confined herself along with Mark) wrote of an inmate named Mary. One day, the staff decided to move Mary to an unlocked ward, separating Mary from her best friend. “There’s only one thing that’s beautiful on 81,” Mary told Mark and Jacobs, referring to her separation from Grace. “It’s not the ward itself. It’s the love, the friendship, the unity of it all, the blessedness we share with each other. We’re patient with each other, waiting to be free together.”
Mary Ellen Mark’s project has been repeatedly compared to her predecessor Diane Arbus (Mark disliked the connection). Arbus, too, was attracted to monsters, saw her own monstrosity in her subjects. Mark felt her own approach was ultimately different than that of Arbus; she called Arbus a distant ‘observer’ of marginal people. Arbus was, in a sense, jealous of the people she photographed: the giants, the twins, the young men in curlers. They were more “real” than everyone else. Arbus – who was raised in an atmosphere of privilege she resented – once said, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” Arbus admired her subjects but she could not connect her own monstrousness to theirs — nor seemingly, to anyone’s, ending her own life in a bathtub at the age of 48. Arbus’ monsters were monsters of separation.
Mark had a great respect for her subjects’ monstrosities, too, but she didn’t linger on them. Rather, her photographs aimed to move through difference to get to an underlying humanity. This is why it wasn’t enough for Mary Ellen Mark to document the lives of mental patients and prostitutes “objectively.” She had to immerse herself in them, be frightened with them, know them. It didn’t seem so hard, then, to see how connected she was to her subjects, how connected we all are. “It’s amazing,” she once told Vanity Fair, “how intimate you can get even when you go into someone’s life only for a few days.”
In 1999, Mary Ellen Mark’s book of collected photographs, American Odyssey, 1963-1999. The book starts with a Maya Angelou poem. The poem is called “Human Family”; it begins and ends like this:
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality. …
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
In this collection of photographs – among the retired rodeo workers and the teenage mothers and the burned-out kids along the Jersey shore – are Idaho housewives in Aryan Nation costumes, and white supremacist teenagers, and enthusiastic participants of a KKK rally pulling up a huge cross in the hills of Tennessee at night. Mark never stopped searching the corners of life, seeking out the shunned. Flipping through the photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, you are bound to be confronted by a human being you have never seen before, and perhaps do not wish to see. While many of her subjects might garner a viewer’s sympathy, sympathy was never Mark’s goal. It was not pity Mark was trying to capture in her work but, once again, reality. The photographs of white supremacists are shot with the same sensitivity and silence with which Mark shot all her subjects, the same acknowledgment of a common humanity. These people, too, live in society’s shadows, a community of monsters, wanting to belong. “I exist,” the people in these photographs say. “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” •
Photo of Mary Ellen Mark by Jacob Bañuelos via Flickr (Creative Commons)