Excerpt from Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment

In an excerpt from Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment, the photographer reflects on her favorite portraits and how her now-recognizable images came to be.

One of the last projects by Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015), Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment, the latest book in Aperture’s Workshop Series gathers some of the acclaimed documentary photographer’s favorite portraits alongside her commentary about where she found her subjects and how the now-recognizable images came to be. Mark passed away in May of this year, after the completion of this book and Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, to be released this fall. From her early magazine assignments to the series Streetwise and Prom, she reflected in the book, excerpted below, on decades of iconic photographs of everything from everyday life to the bizarre, taken around the world.

This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of the Aperture Photography App.

black and white photograph

Craig Scarmardo and Cheyloh Mather at the Boerne Rodeo, Texas, 1991

Let Things Happen

This photograph was shot in the early ’90s on assignment to photograph small-town rodeos for Texas Monthly magazine. It was a great assignment for me (given by a wonderful art director, D. J. Stout), and we found six or seven towns with rodeos. We timed things to shoot seven rodeos in about three weeks. I had never been to a rodeo before. Everything about it was fascinating, and very Texan.

These boys look a little bit like brothers, but they aren’t. They’re close friends and were bull riders. It’s one of the most dangerous sports in the world, really terrifying. I saw countless men and boys being thrown and stomped on by bulls.

I got to a point where I couldn’t watch anymore and began photographing people on the sidelines. This was shot on 4-by-5, so I definitely directed them to look at me. I probably did a Polaroid test-shot first, but that’s how they decided to stand on their own. They were excellent bull riders; you can tell by their attitude that they knew it too. They were macho beyond their years.

black and white photograph

Samantha Monte and Khalil Samad, Staten Island, New York, 2006

Take Control

I was looking for another project to do with the 20-by-24 Polaroid camera, like Twins, which I finished in 2002. I feel sort of let down after I finish a big series—I firmly believe that I’m only as good as the next thing I do. I’m not interested in going back but in going forward. I miss the excitement—that amazing excitement—of starting a new project, which is why I am a photographer. The prom seemed right for my next project because I was interested in the costumes, the rituals, the choice of partner. I felt the need to look at them closely. I knew it would be a good idea. . . .

With the 20-by-24 Polaroid camera, I didn’t have the luxury of shooting lots of frames. The film costs a fortune, and there’s no postproduction. The picture comes out of the camera finished, so the lighting, the set up, everything, has to be perfect during the shot. You have to take into account all the details. I used the same backdrop and setup for each picture. I had to make a decision before the shot and stick to it: I’ll shoot from this distance, and have this idea for the photograph. I couldn’t take lots of pictures and then decide because I had so few frames to shoot.

black and white photograph

Ram Prakash Singh with His Elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1990

Look for Mystery

Fiction writers are lucky in the sense that they can imagine anything. I am not good at imagining things; I’m most interested in finding the strangeness and irony in reality. That’s my forte.

This picture of the elephant and his trainer is one of my most well-known pictures from the Indian circus. It has a strong composition, with the trunk making a circle around the trainer. He had the elephant perform that for me (I think he was showing off). But what makes the portrait work so well is the elephant’s expression. I took several pictures of this act, so much so that the elephant got fed up. He looked at me from the side as if to say, “Ugh, Mary Ellen, that’s enough. This is your last frame.”

Sometimes it’s better to go for a subtle image rather than a sensational one. Simple and direct images can work, but look for what has some mystery to it. I couldn’t have planned such a sly look from the elephant and how it would contrast with the seriousness of the trainer. Afterward, the trainer insisted that I get my picture taken with the elephant’s trunk around me. It was very heavy!

black and white photograph

Amanda and Her Cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990 © Mary Ellen Mark

Build the Frame

There was a school for problem children in Valdese, North Carolina, and I went there on assignment for LIFE magazine. I thought all the kids were great. Nine-year-old Amanda was very intelligent and very naughty. She was, of course, my favorite. I took a lot of pictures of her, and one day I rode the school bus home with her. I was curious about where she lived. She got off the bus in front of her house but ran into the woods. I ran after her and found her sitting there in an old chair smoking a cigarette. What could I do? She was nine and smoking a cigarette. If I had asked her to stop, she would have just laughed at me.

I met Amanda’s mother and arranged to come back the following Sunday to spend a day photographing. I always recommend sticking with a subject you like to photograph. You don’t have to be on a magazine assignment to follow your interests and instincts. Following one subject can be an assignment in and of itself.

Amanda got really excited that I was coming. She put on her mother’s makeup, and even got fake fingernails. So I spent the day with the family, mainly Amanda and her cousin, Amy. I was a little disappointed because Amanda was so into being photographed that it was hard to catch an authentic moment. Sometimes, the hardest thing is to get people to stop mugging for the camera. Also, with children, if they are playing too much to you, it’s not real (they’re too involved with you). Treat them like adults. Sometimes I’ll say, “If you smile, I won’t take your picture.”

Toward the end of the day, as I was about to leave, Amanda’s mother said, “Amanda’s back in the kiddy pool if you want to say good-bye.” So I went back to the pool, and there she was smoking a cigarette. I had my Leica with me. I composed the picture quickly with the round pool filling a lot of the frame. Amanda commands the foreground with her attitude and her cigarette. You can see that she’s totally relaxed in front of the camera after a day of shooting. She’s not performing anymore. I shot two frames, maybe three.

I often tell students, “Don’t put away your camera. Keep it out at all times even when you think you have the shot already.” Something can always happen. I had packed up all of my other equipment but luckily I had the Leica on me.