“The moment I held my first camera in my hands, I fell in love. . . . It was strange. I became obsessed with photography. I knew it would be my life’s work. I felt that I had a chance of being good at it, and I wanted more than anything to be self-sufficient.” (Mary Ellen Mark, letter to Tina Ruisinger, April 24, 2001)
Mary Ellen Mark (March 20, 1940 – May 25, 2015)
The death of Mary Ellen Mark moved me deeply. I had met and photographed her twice in 1998 for my book "Faces of Photography". She was the youngest of the photographers in my book.
New York, April 22, 1998. The meeting with Mary Ellen Mark takes place in her loft in Soho. She does not like being photographed. But I’m here, and she receives me affably. She leads me into a wonderfully exotic realm full of souvenirs of her extensive travels. She doesn’t really feel well today, would like to postpone the shooting. Still, she allows me some time, lets me take photographs. A critical gaze, bright eyes, candid and challenging. We watch each other. Mary Ellen Mark sees everything, misses nothing. Later we talk about my work. I sense her intense dedication to the cause of young photographers. Her interest is genuine, and she gives me tips and advice. Asks a lot of questions, judges harshly, but honestly. We plan to meet again and repeat the shooting when she is feeling better. Then she gives me the name of a collector who might be interested in the portraits. “After all, you need to pay the rent,” she says. She accompanies me out onto the street. “By the way, you don’t look German, you look more Asian. . . . ” Two months later, I visit her again. I photograph her on a street in Soho. She sits there like a Mexican woman, on the steps, looking at me. Quietly and earnestly, always very present. Everything happens very quickly, but I have a good feeling about it. She wishes me the best of luck as we part.
In April 2001 I write to Mary Ellen Mark asking if she would write a preface for my book. She remembers me, replies immediately, saying she would be happy to write a quote for the book. Another example of her commitment to other photographers.
T. R. “What brought you to photography?”
M. E. M. “In graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied photography. From my first contact on the street with my camera and with strangers I met and photographed, I knew I’d found my life’s work.”
T. R. “What was the first experience you had with photography?”
M. E. M. “As a child, I would spend hours looking through old family scrapbooks, fascinated by the different images. For example, images of my mother as a child at camp, of my father in the first World War, and of my mother as a young woman on vacation, sitting on top of an ostrich. I loved the sense of nostalgia and humor in those albums.”
T. R. “What is photography for you?”
M. E. M. “Photography means so many things to me; it’s hard to specify them into one single thought. For sure, photography has been my life: it has educated me. It has enabled me to look at so many people and at so many different cultures. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.”
T. R. “What was your motivation for photography then, and what is it now?”
M. E. M. “In the very beginning, my motivation was the same as it is now: to explore the world and to look intimately at the lives of so many different people.”