Mary Ellen Mark, 75: Her book, Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India

Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, while working on her last book, "Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India."
Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, while working on her last book, "Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India."

ATHENS, GA (May 26, 2015) – Mary Ellen Mark, 75, died yesterday, on Memorial Day, as confirmed today by a family representative. 

The legendary photographer is survived by her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell.

Before her death Mark had been working on a project with CNNMoney in New Orleans as she explored the city as it is today for the upcoming 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"We’ll publish that work throughout the summer at photography festivals and special exhibitions with the full set of photographs publishing on CNNMoney in August," CNN's Erica Puntel told News Photographer magazine today. 

Last October author Stephen Wolgast reviewed Mark's latest book, Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India, for News Photographer magazine, the monthly publication of the National Press Photographers Association. 

An email from Mark to the magazine's editor after the issue was published revealed how pleased she was with the review. Today, in honor of her passing, we will reprint Wolgast's article:

 

 

 

Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India

By Mary Ellen Mark

University of Texas Press: 2014

168 pps, 129 photographs

 

 

By Stephen Wolgast

Mary Ellen Mark finds ideas and turns them into photographs.

It’s not the usual way a photojournalist works, but she isn’t your usual photojournalist.

She holds two fine arts degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and the list of magazines she’s published in, the museums and galleries she’s exhibited in, and the organizations she’s received grants from, form a pantheon of professional and artistic recognition. The way she uses photography for social understanding has a lot to do with her success.

In all of Mark’s photographs you can feel the connection between her and her subjects, as if it’s a taut line of string. If one person tugs, the other follows.

It’s that connection that makes her photographs so personal, as if her subjects think nothing of baring their lives for the camera of a visitor. Maybe that’s because most of her subjects have never been sincerely asked, by someone who honestly wanted to know, how they’re feeling.

You could call her work portraiture, but that’s too stuffy. Portraiture calls to mind lights, if not a studio, and posing. Contrivance, in other words.

Mark’s work is the opposite of contrived. In Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India, her collection of photographs taken mostly at circuses in Mexico and India, Mark does nothing to prettify her subjects or their setting.

What’s different in this book is her idea that animals and their caretakers are connected, that there’s that same taut line connecting man and beast.

The animals that perform and the trainers who rely on them owe their livelihood to each other. Yes, circus animals would probably be happier in the wild, but once an elephant is in Mexico, you can’t just let it loose and hope it will find a nice, quiet savannah.

In an interview in the book’s foreword, Mark acknowledges that circus animals can be maltreated. “I know the animal-rights people are going to hate this,” she says, “and I understand how there is a concern about how circus animals are treated, but I myself didn’t see abuse – with only one exception.” The exception was a lion tamer in India who smacked a lion on the nose. Needlessly painful for the lion, life-endangering for the trainer.

Mark, who has helped rescue dogs from abusive families in Mexico, makes it clear that she loves and respects animals and is dedicated to their happiness.

The four-legged performers are dressed up sometimes, or decorated with makeup. The artifice makes them more fun to watch while performing, and hides some of their natural roughness.

Mark’s photographs were largely taken outside the ring, away from crowds and spotlights. Separated from the performance, the animals and their humans are at ease but still ready to put on a little show. The animals hold poses or do stunts, but without the razzmatazz of the big top they look like animals that are posing or doing stunts. Like any performer, they need their stage to look grand.

Away from the stage they’re animals, not actors, and their trainers are people who look weary from their work. Some have started taking off their costumes, only a few bother to smile, and most look like they’d rather have a tequila or take a nap.

In short, the people have a lot in common with the animals. They’re both accustomed to performing though neither seems particularly thrilled by the job. Both put on outfits that hide their true identities, and sometimes those outfits make them look like something they’re not.

It’s here, in the netherworld beyond the big tent but still on the circus grounds, that Mark found her subject. When we live closely with animals, training them to behave in ways we recognize, do we also adopt some of the animals’ ways?

Mark finds plenty of examples of the way we do. A boy swims in dark water with only his face exposed. In mourning his father he may be hiding from the world, but his eyes make him look like a predator waiting for its prey.

Little girls are dressed for a show, getting their hair cut outdoors by a coiffeur who herself is in costume as if ready to perform. The scene calls to mind kennel-club dog shows, where pets are groomed by trainers in show clothes. When a person, not a pup, is the subject, we’re left wondering what the difference is.

Dwarves show up throughout her book. Social outcasts, the one place they seem to fit in is a traveling show. Mark shows them posing like tough guys in one scene and cuddling with a child in another. That’s no different from ordinary life. But dressing up in a gorilla costume with your twin brother who is, of course, also a dwarf? That’s anything but ordinary.

In Mark’s photograph of the twins, though, they – or the one with the gorilla mask off, anyway – appear to be in their element. Look at the picture again, and you see people dressed as animals for the sake of a circus audience. That’s not so different from the animals we put in clothes for our entertainment, is it? Dressing up as something else: it hides who we are for fun and, at a circus, for money.

Her human performers, like the animal ones, would probably be happier living away from the circus. But it’s not as if we can just turn them away and hope for the best. The animals and the people in Mark’s photographs succeed because they have one another.

As in any couple, living together long enough, each picks up some of the traits of their partner.

 
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