Discuss a Mary Ellen Mark photograph

Discussion in 'Discussing a ****** Photograph' started by f/stopblues, Aug 8, 2006.

  1. f/stopblues

    f/stopblues Member

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    A common theme in her photos is of kids forced to play adult roles, or kids weathered by life long before they should be. They've been burdened by maturity through necessity. In this photograph I'm struck by the sadness in their faces. What about the mask? The comfort in each other? I immediately want to know their story, what they're feeling and why. A good photo engages the viewer to seek out answers, either by means of further viewing the photo or by resources outside what is presented. This one captured my attention.

    I'm not going to post the backround information on this, as I would be interested in everyone's personal interpretation of the scene. More of her work can be found at www.maryellenmark.com or www.art-dept.com/artists/mark.

    Thanks again to Jim for starting this idea!
     
  2. Jerevan

    Jerevan Subscriber

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    Mary was the first photographer that made me really want to make photographs (it was her circus photos from India, that took hold of me, in colour of all things!). Many of her subjects seems a bit lost, sometimes in the world, sometimes in thoughts. Very often there's a thing discordant within the photographs, here it's the mask on the boy (?), it feels like a carnival that's no fun anymore. Could be a boring summer's day, could be a caravan camp or refugees from somewhere, but there is an intense feeling of melancholy in this one for me.
     
  3. tim atherton

    tim atherton Inactive

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    looks like gypsies/Travellers?
     
  4. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

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    It's a wonderful photograph. There's an immediacy and intimacy that's deeply personal and unguarded here...not even a trace of 'posing'. It fires one's imagination to construct a 'story' that accounts for the expressive melancholy, and that quickly becomes involving. It's 'in your face' because it's truly in theirs. Mary Ellen....you go girl!!
     
  5. Kino

    Kino Member

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    Great photo. Looks like itinerant workers or gypsies and the kids are seemingly pondering their future in the midst of a pause of playing. Something about it is edgy; the way the frame is dynamically loaded off balance, my eyes keep going to the boy who looks accusingly into the camera, his mask which is ironic in the context of his expression, the girl's thousand yard stare from ?? accumulated road trauma??, the tires on the far right, the trash on the road, the men in the background at the card table and then back to the boy to start over again.

    It almost feels like a bomb is about to go off and they seem resigned to their fate and all you can do is look on...

    Kinda like a Hitchcock film, only better.
     
  6. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    Agree it seems to be "travellers" or gypsies (the folks in Brit/Euro would know better).

    Besides all that has been mentioned - I also think the angle of the road to the sunset suggest an "endless road" that these travellers are fated to follow.

    Are the immediate subjects seeking "escape" or are they portraying "resignation"? That I cannot decide
     
  7. Alex Hawley

    Alex Hawley Member

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    Its a good photo and it can tell many stories, can be interpreted many ways.

    The thing that always gets me about this type of work is the possible exploitation that can take place. Avedon, another splendid photographer, often produced work in this same genre. My own personal opinion, but I just have a gut rejection of photographers making money off other people's misery or perceived misery. Have no idea whether that's the case with this one or not, but I think it can easily become demeaning to the subjects, whether intentionally demeaning or not.
     
  8. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    The first question one must ask himself is, "what is the photograph really about?" Is it about the children? Is it about the children in relation to their environment? I think it's the later.
    I have always maintained that a good photograph must stimulate the viewer's emotions, or his intellect. Aesthetically, this is not a particularly interesting image, but it asks innumerable questions, and stirs the imagination: What The Hell is Going On Here?
    The silver butterfly mask draws one's eyes immediately to it (because of the brightness), but there is no joy associated with it, as you would expect from someone wearing such a thing. The children don't actually look happy or unhappy, they just look vacant, or perhaps only tired.
    What is their relation to the rows of campers? The lighting is dull -- is it too early in the morning for the kids to be really awake? Or is it in the evening, and they are exhausted?
    There is one of those black things between the girl's eyebrows, so the presumption is that they are Indian. Is this a bunch of people on Holiday, or temporary housing for migrant workers, or are they indeed Gypsies or Travelers?
    The picture does not stand alone -- it needs companions or explanation to provide a context for appreciation. I can imagine what it's about, but look forward to the background information to be posted.
    Mary Ellen Mark usually hits the mark for me.
     
  9. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    Alex,

    If you're going raise the question,
    you might as well report back after checking out Mark's integrity.

    It's hard for me to step back far enough from Mark to discuss the picture.

    I don't think there's any doubt that she is the photographer to set the standard - in every way - over the past 20 or 30 years.

    d
     
  10. Alex Hawley

    Alex Hawley Member

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    df - not questioning her integrity. Like i said, many times the photograph is exploited by others far removed from the photographer. Its just I question I always have whenever I see something like this. And I haven't seen this one before.
     
  11. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    " I just have a gut rejection of photographers making money off other people's misery or perceived misery " Hawley

    Postmodernism and the Popular Culture hasn't corrupted everybody.

    “In most cases, if I didn’t tell their story, nobody would.” Mary Ellen Mark

    You should check her out, Alex. You'll find that she is impeccable.
     
  12. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    I'm bothered by your use of the term "exploited".

    Maybe these are just two weary folk waiting to get into the Burning Man Festival?
     
  13. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    Thanks for posting the image. When I was thinking about future images I thought about Mark. Glad you picked her.

    In this image its the eyes. The eyes of the girl frighten me a little. I don't know if I want to know the experiences behind those eyes. They look far older then the real age of the girl. The boy(?) perhaps for a moment pretending to be someone else, wishing to be someone else.


    I always go back and forth on the issue of exploitation with this type of photography. I remeber seeing Diane Arbus' images of institutionalized retarded adults for the first time 20 years ago and being sort of shocked.
    Now when I look at them I see a certain innocence and diginity in the people photographed. They seem today to be very caring images.
     
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  15. Gay Larson

    Gay Larson Member

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    It does evoke emotion. At first glance I felt pity, they look so tired and vacant and the mask doesn't seem to belong. They aren't enjoying it. The boy's eyes seem to have some anger in them. They make me think of all the children who have no choice in the way they must live their lives. What would they choose if they could?
     
  16. Curt

    Curt Subscriber

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    She is one of the great Social conscience photographers. I still see her pictures today in the streets, as the underbelly shows its self in the color of today.
     

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  17. Curt

    Curt Subscriber

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    Wow!!!

    I like the first one as it shows how life is for a lot of people. We seldom see these people except on occasion and we tend to look away.

    She did portraits also, like this old gentleman with a camera!

    Sorry for the double copy of the first. Here work is very very impressive.
     
  18. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    It is really wonderful to read the impressions of this Mark photograph and photography. Work like the thread photo function on so many levels that analysis is an examination of your own soul.
     
  19. David H. Bebbington

    David H. Bebbington Inactive

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    A great picture, evidence of MEM's ability to depict people at the bottom of the social heap with dignity and empathy. Sadly, also an example of the kind of "committed" photography for which it is becoming ever harder to find an outlet.The question of MEM's motivation is valid, I for one have absolutely no reason to doubt her sincerity. The comparison with Avedon's social documentary work is interesting. I think RA was motivated by egotism and a desire to show that he was "serious" - his pictures in particular taken in state mental institutions are a perfect example of total failure to engage with the subject matter.

    PS: Yet another good choice of material for discussion!
     
  20. Changeling1

    Changeling1 Member

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    Looks like two kids living on Pork 'n Beans and worn–out lies. What wouldn't they do for chocolate milk and cigarettes? I hope they never got near Hollywood, California.
     
  21. noblebeast

    noblebeast Member

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    This is one of the great, and disturbing, things that only a photograph can do. If you saw these two kids on the street you could, and probably would, glance away without looking too deeply in their eyes. But the photograph makes it okay to take a closer look and what I see in those eyes bugs me a lot - kids who have seen and experienced things that youngsters that age should not have had to deal with. A painter could show us that, but we wouldn't know how much of it was "impressionistic." A video could present their story, but with so many elements going on at once (movement, sound, color, a word from our sponsor) it would be easy to miss the details. Someone could tell us about these kids and we would shake our heads and "tsk, tsk," but it would be on a relatively superficial level. A photograph captured the moment and the look and holds it still for us to really ponder if we dare to look.

    And all the talk of "exploitation" and such seems to #1 always come from those who's primary work is in landscape or other inanimate subjects (not a denigration of the work, the photographers or the subject matter). #2 It's good to learn the background of photographers rather than make assumptions. Mary Ellen Mark cares about her subjects deeply, and in many cases remains in contact with them - not to further exploit but to track the progress of her friends. Diane Arbus went to the institutions for the mentally challenged to force us to acknowledge the existence of a population that up until that point was kept hidden from the sight of "polite" company (much as she did in her other photographic subjects). In her journals she wrote about the people she was photographing at these institutions, referring to them by name and personalities and talking about the enjoyment she got in their company. And they enjoyed the attention they were receiving from someone on the "outside," so who was exploiting whom?

    I'm reminded of the old saw, "Your feelings don't tell you about anyone but yourself." So if someone feels this sort of work is exploitive, perhaps they can best be served by that feeling by focusing inward. For myself, if I could give the world just a few photos of this nature then none of my playing around with silver and chemicals would have been an empty, self indulgent exercise.

    Thanks for posting this photo,
    Joe
     
  22. David H. Bebbington

    David H. Bebbington Inactive

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    Appears to be Ansel Adams (or his twin brother)?
     
  23. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    This is a striking image, the girls looks to be a 14 going on 40, and the boy, perhaps, wants to stay young. Lots of ways to interpret it, and yet, I think, it's obvious they've had difficult lives. She really did capture something in that girl's eyes!

    The exploitation issue comes up from time to time, because there's a perception that a photographer can show up someplace, rattle off a few snaps and be on their merry way. When, in fact, it's quite time consuming to gain the trust needed to achieve this type of image. It's rather hard to photograph human suffering. And, honestly, Mark has probably made very little money on this image. Images of human suffering are, indeed, quite hard to sell. But, as Don quoted, their stories have no chance to be told if she doesn't make the photoraphs. I think she supplements her income doing a lot of commercial work.

    Oh... and that is Ansel Adams! Don't you just love the hat?
     
  24. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    The eyes have it.

    I am reminded of Dorothea Lange's "Damaged Child" (1936).

    More than one novelist has noted that the eyes of a masked child can be unsettling. (One example: John Le Carre in "A Perfect Spy", when describing the look on Rickie Pym's face when he is cornered and dangerous. The eyes "regret your decisions and note your mortality" - I may have misquoted from memory. Still gives me the chills.)
     
  25. reellis67

    reellis67 Subscriber

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    To me, this is a powerful image; one that forces me to stop and look for some time rather than grab a brief look and move along to the next picture. There is a tremendous amount of mystery bound in the subjects faces - long years in young eyes - and the sense of place created by the background adds to that feeling. I've never taken this type of image, and I doub't that I ever will, but it still captivates me. With my own photos I tend to work more along the technical lines than the aesthetic or emotional, so it is hard for me to not be moved by the different style of photography. I see the details that I focus on in my own work - lines and so on - but I can tell immediately that the photographer had completely internalized the concepts of design and uses them unconsiously, which allows her to see the subject with her full attention, and is shows in the results.

    - Randy
     
  26. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    Noblebeast makes an excellent point that only a still photograph could best present that kind of situation.
    I still maintain, however, that this particular image is not complete within itself unless the viewer has additional information, or is already familiar with the situation. Taken out of context we don't really know what it represents, although so far the consensus of the responders on this forum is that it somehow represents children who are old before their time, and have lost the optimism of youth. That's an awful lot to read into a single picture with no real information on the underlying background.
    I'm reminded of the quotation by Walker Evans when asked if a photograph could ever lie, his answer was, "they always do."