Mary Ellen Mark, one of the greatest documentary photographers to ever wield a camera, passed away earlier this week. I was saddened to hear of her death. Her photography to me was representative of a certain purity in the art that I fear is being lost these days. When I look at her photos there is depth, honesty, compassion, sometimes humor, and a lack of judgement toward her subjects. She had a knack for capturing people as they existed, for who they were. The photos are up close and personal with her subjects. You don't get photos like she did without getting to know the people and earning their trust.
Some time back I was browsing the book shelves of a used book store and stumbled upon her monograph titled "Exposure." It was a lucky find for me. This books represents Mary Ellen's personal favorites from her vast body of work. It is a powerful collection. My favorite in the book is an image she called "Dancing Woman." Is is color photo (most are black and white) of an elderly woman dancing by a juke box in a senior home. For some reason this image makes me smile every time I look at it. Others are painful to look at, such as seeing the eyes of dying man taking his last breaths or child in a casket. In her documentation of people in whatever conditions they face, Mary Ellen didn't pull any punches. She showed the realities of her subjects for better or worse. No imagery for pure shock value as we are more likely to see these days - just honesty and reality with a certain care in preserving dignity as much as possible.
"Exposure" was published in 2005. Mary Ellen wrote in her afterword about how documentary photography was changing from the world she knew as a photojournalist. She wrote, "Now the primary interest seems to be surface; content and reality are seldom seen." Indeed, there is heavy emphasis these days on visual impact over substance. I see too many photographers that essentially do for photography what lip syncing, dancing, elaborately costumed performers have done for popular music. Of the photos in "Exposure", Mary Ellen went on to write, "At certain moments, it is painful to look at many of these pictures because it reminds me of a time when this kind of work was supported and published. It makes me worry that I will never have the opportunity again to pursue what I love most - taking photographs of subjects I feel passionate about."
It is a sobering thought that photographers like Mary Ellen Mark are a of a breed that may not have an outlet or audience in this changing world. As they leave us, who will replace them and will the world even care about documentary still photography? People are so distracted these days. Fewer and fewer seem interested in dwelling on photos. Quick video clips, tweets, rapid scrolling of image feeds with one image bleeding into the other and nothing in particular giving pause to stop and look - really look. I'd sure like to believe that good documentary photography will continue to stand the test of time and that photojournalists will be able to find outlets for their work. I for one will continue to find refuge from bombardment of tweets, Instagrams, and FB selfies in good photo books like "Exposure."
Mary Ellen Mark, you will be missed.