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All photos copyrighted by Mary Ellen Mark.

I remember when I first saw the work of Mary Ellen Mark, I was blown away. Her work had such a deep sense of love and empathy for her subjects. Not only that, but her compositions and framing was brilliant. I always noticed that around the edges of the frame– she always had great little details which made her photographs great.

Even though Mary Ellen Mark is more of a documentary photographer– her photos have a very strong “street” feel. She photographs people, and her images have emotion and soul. I feel that we can all learn a lot from her life’s work.

Inspirations

When it comes to Mary Ellen Mark’s inspirations– she quotes the following:

“The first photographer I ever became aware of was Cartier-Bresson. He is a great photographer; I collect photographs and I have some of his images and they are wonderful to live with. They are very powerful. I love the images of Kertész and the photographs of Robert Frank. They were the photographers whose work I first looked at when I started photographing. Certainly people like Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Eugene Smith were among the photographers that have inspired me. They took powerful images. Some of their images have become icons. Those are the kind of photographs I aspire to make. They are very difficult images to make because you only have a certain amount of them in you that you can make in a lifetime. To me that is what great photography is about.

To Mary Ellen Mark, great images and “iconic images” is what inspires her. It is what inspires her work– to make strong stand-alone images which stand the test of time. She realizes that one can only make a certain number of “iconic” images in their lifetime– but it is something that she strives towards.

1. Make strong single-images

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Going upon the previous point, Mary Ellen Mark continues to share the importance of strong single-images. In an interview, she is told that her style is described “…as both a documentary photographer and a photojournalist.” When asked upon the distinction of both, Mary Ellen Mark says:

“I have never known the difference between one and the other. To me a documentary photographer and a photojournalist are pretty much the same thing. If I have to make a distinction, I’m more a documentary photographer- don’t think of myself as a photo-essayist in the sense that I always consider a magazine layout when I’m working.”

Mark shares the importance of single images standing by themselves:

“To be honest with you, I always try to think of the specific pictures. What’s important to me is to make strong, individual pictures. When I look at a documentary photographer or photojournalist whose work I really love- somebody like Eugene Smith-it’s because the images are single images. I think of his great picture stories as stories where the images really stood by themselves. In Life’s “Country Doctor,” for example, you remember each image. They weren’t only linking images -each one was strong, and each can stand alone. I think in great magazine or newspaper photography every picture can stand on its own; it doesn’t need the other pictures to support it to tell a story.

Takeaway point:

I think that great photos don’t need any strong captions or interesting backstories. Images should stand on their own, without any other external support.

For my photography, I try to work on projects. But I also try to make every image able to stand on its own– and hopefully linking strong images to make a body of work.

So when it comes to your own work, ask yourself: Do each of your photographs work as single images? Can each stand on their own? Do they need some sort of back-story or caption to support it? Would your photographs be strong without an artist’s statement to ‘explain’ them?

Counter-argument:

Not every photograph has to be strong as single-images when in a project or a series. In movies, not every scene needs to involve explosions (think of Michael Bay and ‘Transformers’). Sometimes you need quiet and weaker images to better add drama to the stronger images.

2. Make meaningful work

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Mary Ellen Mark has been shooting for many decades, and she isn’t stopping anytime soon. What drives her work? To make meaningful work:

Interviewer: “How do your assignments come to you? Do you ever go to an editor or an art director with your own ideas for stories, or do they usually call you and commission you to do a piece?”

Mary Ellen Mark: “I think it works both ways. I’d say it is about fifty-fifty. It varies but I’m still constantly working on ideas. I even hire people to research ideas for me, and I’m always looking for specific things that I want to do. There are themes that are visually interesting to me. I don’t want to do the kind of photo essay anymore that isn’t going to bring me images that add to my work as a whole. That’s always something I have in the back of my mind; I’ve always tried to do that and now even more so. I want to make the magazine work I do, the documentary work I do, add up to something. At the end of my life I want to look back at what I’ve done and say, “This hasn’t been for nothing.”

Takeaway point:

I think a great strategy to be truly fulfilled as a photographer in life is to look back at your work and tell yourself: “This wasn’t for nothing.”

So what that means is to take photographs that matter. I think one of my biggest critiques of street photography is that a lot of street photos are just of random scenes in the street which don’t really ‘mean anything’. They might be funny and humorous– but lacking some sort of deeper message about life and humanity.

So ask yourself, are your street photographs meaningful– and do they help benefit society?

Counter-argument:

Mary Ellen Mark sets the bar really high for herself in photography. She has dedicated her life to photography– and has even opted out of having children (so she can focus on her photography).

But her approach isn’t for everybody. Sometimes, you just want to photograph on the streets to blow off some stream or have fun. Don’t discount this approach either.

3. Don’t crop

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Whenever you see the work of Mary Ellen Mark, it is incredible to see how solid her compositions are and her framing. The corners of her frame are always immaculate. What causes her to be such a great framer? She doesn’t crop. She shares in an interview:

“I hate it when people crop photographs. Whenever I’m teaching a workshop or working with students I always say, “You must crop in your camera, not afterwards.” I’ve always been really careful when I make a frame- I’m not saying every frame I do is perfect, but if I select a frame for a magazine, I’m picking it because it’s a good picture. When it’s cropped I think, “God, it just doesn’t make sense. The picture’s no good any more. It’s not what I shot.”

Takeaway point:

I used to be a serial “crop-a-holic.” Meaning– I used to crop all of my photos. Every single one. This caused me to be a very lazy photographer. I wouldn’t move my feet or ‘work the scene’ when out shooting. I consciously and sub-conciously told myself, “If I don’t get the frame perfect, I can always crop later.”

So if you want to make your photographs stronger and improve your compositions– don’t crop your photos. I personally haven’t cropped any of my photographs the last 3 years. And what that has done for me is to force me to be uber-diligent when framing my scenes.

So a fun assignment: Shoot street photography for a year and don’t crop any of your photos. You will be amazed how much this will help your photography.

Counter-argument:

I don’t think that in every circumstance– a photographer should never crop his/her photos. For example, if you look at the work of Robert Frank and “The Americans” you can see he cropped his photos quite heavily. He even cropped some landscape photos into portrait photos.

I think ultimately it is the image which matters. And if cropping will make a photograph stronger, I say go for it. But as a general guideline, I don’t recommend street photographers starting off to crop more than 5-10% of their images. Otherwise I think it makes them lazy.

4. Show your point-of-view

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Realize that in street photography, you are not a passive and subjective viewer. You are an active participant.

Mary Ellen Mark clarifies in her own work:

“I don’t think you’re ever an objective observer. By making a frame you’re being selective, then you edit the pictures you want published and you’re being selective again. You develop a point of view that you want to express. You try to go into a situation with an open mind, but then you form an opinion and you express it in your photographs. It is very important for a photographer to have a point of view- that contributes to a great photograph.”

Takeaway point:

Realize that every photograph you take is subjective. You decide to frame a photo in a certain way. You decide what to include and what to exclude. You experience the world differently than other people– and you find certain things more (or less) interesting than others.

So don’t try to aim for “objectivity” in your street photography– as it doesn’t exist. Share your personal viewpoint with the rest of the world.

Counter-argument:

Know that when it comes to photography such a documentary and photojournalism, you want to strive to be more “objective” than regular street photographs.

What I mean by that is if you are covering AIDS in Africa– don’t just create propaganda for a view you don’t believe in. Be authentic and genuine from your own perspective. Don’t portray a person or a situation in a way which feels inauthentic to you.

5. Make universal images

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I look at a lot of street photographs– both locally (in the states) and internationally. A lot of street photographers like to put funny text or juxtapositions in their work.

Sometimes it works– a lot of times it doesn’t (if it isn’t in English).

The reason is that you want to make images that are universally understood by others. This often means capturing images that have emotion and soul (something we can all relate to). Mary Ellen Mark explains:

“What I’m trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood, whether in China or Russia or America‑photographs that cross cultural lines. So if the project is about street performers, it touches those little things and whimsies we’re all interested in -animals and people and anthropomorphic qualities. If it’s about famine in Ethiopia, it’s about the human condition all over the world: It’s about people dying in the streets of New York as much as it’s about Ethiopia. I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.”

Takeaway point:

When you’re sharing your images, ask yourself– will someone in China understand this photograph the same as I do?

As human beings– we all experience love, sadness, and emotions the same. So make photographs that are more emotional– that will always cross cultural lines.

Counter-argument:

If you are making photos that are very specific for a certain local audience– perhaps making an image too universal might dilute your image.

However still– you can never go wrong making photographs that are emotional.

6. On editing

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Editing (choosing your best images) is one of the most difficult things to do in photography. Mary Ellen Mark shares her process:

Mary Ellen Mark starts off by going through her contact sheets and slowly cutting down her images:

“It took me a long time to edit the pictures from India. I have learned to edit work more efficiently. It has taken me some years to learn to be a good editor. It’s a very important part of your work. I go through various contact sheets at a time and slowly cut it down.”

After that, Mark shares her work with people she trusts, and asks for their opinion:

“Then I ask my husband or Teri who works for me in New York, to also look through the contact sheets and to pick the ones they like. It always helps to have an outside opinion. You are so close and so personally involved with your work, it’s hard to separate yourself from it and see it objectively.”

After that, she matches up her images:

“After they have chosen the ones they like, I match them up. Martin is a great editor. He just goes right through them. Teri is also an excellent editor.”

Mary Ellen Mark still works only in film, and shares her process of editing 35mm versus medium-format:

“Editing 2 1/4 is my favorite because it is so much easier than 35mm. Another thing I have found helpful recently is that I have a copier that enlarges. When I think I really have it down, I enlarge the images on the machine. When an image is bigger you can really see how it holds.”

When working on color slide photos, she also gives another tip:

“I don’t shoot color much anymore, but it’s much easier to edit because you can project it on the wall and meaningful images really stand out.”

Takeaway point:

I think the key takeaway points of the way Mary Ellen Mark edits her work is the following:

a) She makes a first pass through her work herself.

b) She gets feedback and opinion from other photographers/editors she trusts.

c) She matches/sequences/lays out her work in a certain format.

But know that even great photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark need “outside help” because you can become too emotionally involved in your own images.

Counter-argument:

I don’t think there is really a counter-argument to this way of editing. I think everyone needs to get an outside opinion to get more “objective” feedback and insight.

Of course you don’t want to simply “pander to the masses” (i.e.: depending your opinion of your own photos simply by how many likes/favorites you get on social media).

Get feedback from people whose opinion you trust– and whose feedback matter to you.

7. On documenting tragedy

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One of the most difficult things that Mary Ellen Mark does is to document tragedy in life. It has a deep and profound impact on her own life– as she gets emotionally invested. She shares:

“It has a big effect on my life. Certainly it has had a big effect on who I am. It makes me have a low tolerance for bullshit in general, and it makes me have a low tolerance for what is surface, because I feel that the people I have photographed are not surface. They are about something. So it has affected me. It has given me a lot of early age lines.”

Mark shares the importance of being touched emotionally:

“If it does not touch you emotionally, you’re not going to get your photograph. You have to feel about it and to care about them.

However at the same time– realize you only have a limited power to help/influence others:

“On the other hand, you have to decide that you are there to take pictures, that you are not there to change someone’s life, and you cannot take the burden of the world upon your shoulders and feel that you’re someone who is going to change their lives and take them into your life’s intentions, because in many ways you can do more harm than you can help.”

Mark shares the importance of setting up boundaries:

“You have to really set up a clear relationship with your subjects and you have to understand the boundaries, and they do too. It’s very interesting when I leave the situation – everyone exchanges phone number and you think you’re going to hear from them night and day. Usually they don’t call. If they do call – like the little girl Tiny who was in Street Wise, it’s because it’s a real plea. And then you are there for them.”

One of the most difficult things is when leaving a person, a place, or a project:

“You have to be careful how you react even when you’re leaving. In many cases when a project is finished and I have to leave, I’ve felt like crying. Then I realize that if I become too emotional, it just puts a kind of burden on the people I’m leaving. You have to really understand that in many ways these people have given you a tremendous amount and there’s no way you can ever repay them. There’s a lot of guilt that goes along with that too. So there are so many levels and ways of thinking about it, but I couldn’t have done it any other way. I still long to photograph those people. I really care about them, and I long to be in their situations… not only just the fringe situations, but just situations where I can go out with my camera and make photographs.”

Takeaway point:

I think the most memorable photographs are the most emotional ones. And it is impossible to make emotional photographs without becoming emotionally invested as a photographer.

So love your subjects. Become emotionally involved. Create more feelings in your photos by connecting with those you photograph.

Counter-argument:

Sometimes getting too emotionally attached to your subjects can be negative (as Mary Ellen Mark shared). You need to create clear boundaries– and make your intentions clear as a photographer.

You can’t change a person’s life in a dramatic way through your photography. Photography does have the power to change the world, but don’t over-estimate your own abilities and be realistic.

8. On being a participant

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I think as photographers, we shouldn’t just be passive observers– but active participants. I think this applies a lot in street photography as well.

Mary Ellen Mark participates more in “social documentary” which forces her to become more active in documenting what she experiences and sees. She explains:

“One thing’s for sure: In this kind of social documentary photography I do, you’re never a fly on the wall like you are when you photograph a disaster or war and the event is more important than your presence. You’re as much a part of the scene as your subjects. They never forget you’re there.”

She shares the importance of being sensitive when photographing:

“All kinds of photography teach you to be exceptionally perceptive, but particularly social documentary photography because you’re so involved with your subjects. Ward 81 taught me a lot about sensitivity. Those women had serious mental problems. That didn’t mean they weren’t sensitive. If you were aware, they would send you all kinds of signals about when you could and could not go near them. All people are like that. They send signals and you have to know how far you can push in any given situation.”

However the tough thing is sometimes you need to be more pushy:

“I also think it’s very important to get strong and intimate photographs. You do have to push.”

Takeaway point:

I think as street photographers, we all like to think of ourselves as a “fly on the wall”. We want to observe and not “influence” the scene.

But realize that even by being in a certain place or location, you will influence a scene consciously or subconsciously. Without getting too theoretical– think of the “butterfly effect”. The flapping of a wing of a butterfly can theoretically change the weather of a continent half a world away.

As a street photographer, simply walking down a street might change the way foot traffic around you moves. And that change of foot traffic might change the types of subjects which move around you. And that might domino and cascade into you taking a photograph in which wouldn’t exist without you being there.

Also realize that by framing a photo in a certain way, you are warping reality. The only “authentic” way to show the true “objective” nature of a scene is to shoot it with a 360* panoramic camera.

So remember you are as as much of a part of a scene as your subjects are. Revel in your participation.

Counter-argument:

Of course there are ways to be more “active” in street photography. For example, you can approach a stranger, ask for permission, and ask them to pose.

I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong about asking someone to pose. But posed photos tend to be more boring than photos which you don’t explicitly ask for people to pose.

So try to find that balance– of capturing candid moments (when you don’t ask for permission) and when you might ask for permission (or people are aware or your presence).

Conclusion

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I think what we can all ultimately take away from the work of Mary Ellen Mark is her devotion to making timeless images– images that are emotionally powerful and touch the viewer.

We can all admire her work ethic. She has photographed continuously the last several decades– and shows no signs of slowing down.

She also becomes emotionally involved in the work she creates. Of course as street photographers we don’t get as emotionally attached to our subjects– but we can all learn to shoot with more heart, compassion, and soul.

Further Reading on Mary Ellen Mark

All of the quotes I got for this article are from the interviews below:

  1. ASMP Bulletin: Mary Ellen Mark Interview
  2. INTERVIEW: “Street Shooter – An Interview with Mary Ellen Mark” (1987)

Books by Mary Ellen Mark:

To learn more about Mary Ellen Mark’s work, check out her website or see her books below:

1. Mary Ellen Mark (Phaidon 55’s)

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A solid (and affordable) introduction to Mary Ellen Mark’s work.

2. Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81

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One of Mary’s most intimate bodies of work– photographing the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution.

3. Mary Ellen Mark: Prom

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Amazing large-format portraits of prom-goers all across the United States — an insightful sociological look into the lives of teens.

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