Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment: The Photography Workshop Series

Image of Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment: The Photography Workshop Series
Release Date: 
July 20, 2015
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“My life changed . . . when I . . . discovered photography . . . I saw that my camera gave me a connection with others that I had never had before. It allowed me to enter lives, satisfying a curiosity that was always there, but that was never explored before . . . I realized the world was open to me . . . all the people I could meet and how much I could learn from them . . . there was no turning back.”

These words set the stage for The Portrait and the Moment by Mary Ellen Mark.

Ms. Mark, a gifted and prolific photographer, passed away just before the official release of this book, her 19th, leaving behind a substantial body of work and a legacy befitting one of the most accomplished photographers of our time.

In the 1960s, when Ms. Mark began her photography career, she was a pioneer: a woman in a male-dominated field, working in communities across the United States and around the world. Today, Ms. Mark’s work can be found in museum and gallery collections worldwide and has been included in countless exhibitions. The recipient of several honorary degrees, and numerous prestigious fellowships and awards, Ms. Mark has also served as a mentor to many, and is known for leading photography workshops in locations throughout North America, Mexico, and Iceland.

In this volume, which is a part of the Aperture Foundation’s workshop series, the Philadelphia-born photographer offers readers a behind-the-scenes look at some of her iconic photographs, along with sage advice on making powerful, storytelling portraits.

To accomplish this, Ms. Mark draws from her fine arts training and experience in documentary, editorial, and commercial photography. She writes about the importance of composition and elements within a successful photograph, while devoting a significant portion of the text to the practice of waiting, seeing, interpreting, connecting, and feeling. 

There are no checklists or formulas to follow. Ms. Mark simply shares her thoughts on how to approach the work of visual storytelling—and ideas on how to observe, approach, and befriend strangers. She emphasizes the need to care about others, to be curious, and to treat people with respect. She also discusses the challenges of navigating a path between distance and intimacy across cultural boundaries.  The vast majority of Ms. Mark’s subjects are named; these are not anonymous “others” but people she has worked to build a connection with.

Each topic is beautifully illustrated by the author’s images. Brief essays on topics such as “Say More,” “Be Persistent,” “Elevate the Subject,” “Interpret What You See,” “Build the Frame,” and “Get Involved” accompany portraits of diverse subjects—from India’s circus performers and brothel workers, to celebrities on film sets, to a homeless family in California, to patients in a mental health facility.  

Ms. Mark writes of her desire to tell a complete story with each frame; this adds a depth to her work that invites the viewer to revisit each photograph again and again. Her subjects’ personal stories add context and another layer of meaning to the images. Collectively, these narratives are moving, intriguing, heartbreaking, tender, and hopeful. All are imbued with the dignity that characterizes Ms. Mark’s work.

The final section of the book, “Stay Curious,” features photographs by Ms. Mark’s students, and her insight on the different ways that they approach portrait making. She discusses each person’s individual strengths, and uses these observations to encourage and offer further guidance to her readers.

There are other publications on Ms. Mark’s photography, including monographs, anthologies, retrospectives, and others which focus on a single project. For those who are just discovering her work, The Portrait and the Moment offers an introduction to some of Ms. Mark’s strongest images, her creative process, and her motivations in a format both accessible and economical.  

Those who’ve followed Ms. Mark’s career over the years may also find something of value. The wealth of experience and wisdom—more than 50 years’ worth—distilled into these pages makes this book a worthwhile addition to any photographer’s library.