Art //

“Attitude” is Everything in the Portraits of Mary Ellen Mark

Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, presents five decades of extraordinary work.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, USA, 1990.

“I’m most interested in finding the strangeness and irony in reality. That’s my forte,” American photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015) observed, very much aware of the gift she brought to the world. Her passion for the camera and the way in which it captured the curious sides of life can be seen in her life’s work. For five decades, Mark was a singular figure in the medium, producing a series of work that speaks to her love for humanity in its infinite forms.

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Attitude: Portraits by Mary Ellen Mark, 1964–2015, now on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, through June 25, 2016, presents nearly 40 works from the artist’s singular archive. Melissa Harris, editor-at-large at Aperture Foundation, curated the show, selection works from Mark’s famous series, each of them sparkling with life and revealing an intense curiosity about the nature of our days and nights.

Gloria and Raja, Great Gemini Circus, Perintalmanna, India, 1989

Gloria and Raja, Great Gemini Circus, Perintalmanna, India, 1989

Included in the exhibition are works from Indian Circus, Falkland Road, Twins, and Prom, revealing the artist’s personal fascinations. In committing herself so completely to the craft, Mark has created a space of personal freedom that becomes the space upon which she acts. As a documentary photographer, she crafts histories, ones that speak silently, without ever saying a word.

And yet it is in this space that understanding comes. As Mark observed, “I think photography is closest to writing, not painting. It’s closest to writing because you are using this machine to convey an idea. The image shouldn’t need a caption; it should already convey an idea.”

Tiny blowing a bubble, Seattle, 1983

Tiny blowing a bubble, Seattle, 1983

Mark’s photographs speak to a love for the fringe, for the raw and rugged edges of life where polite society ends. Whether photographing Marlon Brando in the Philippines during the making of “Apocalypse Now” or backstage at the Great Gemini Circus in India with Gloria and Raja, a chimp, Mark becomes the very atmosphere in which her subjects live. Her presence is often felt, through posture and poise, in the way that her subjects give her just what she’s looking for: the freedom of self-liberation.

“In a portrait, you always leave part of yourself behind,” Mark observed, and it is in Attitude that we can see it all unfold. Mary Ellen Mark tells stories that people need to hear, picture perfect universes of the world in which she lived. It was always meant to be as Mark recalled, “I knew from the first moment I picked up a camera, on my first school assignment, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was going to find a way to travel the world and tell the stories of the people I met through photographs.”

Marlon Brando fascinated by a dragonfly, Apocalypse Now, Pagsanjan, Philippines, 1976

Marlon Brando fascinated by a dragonfly, Apocalypse Now, Pagsanjan, Philippines, 1976

And for that, we thank you.

All photos: ©Mary Ellen Mark, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.