Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment is the most recent (last?) volume in Aperture’s Photography Workshop Series, and was published in 2015, shortly before Mark’s death. As with other volumes in the series, it’s full of wisdom, acquired through decades of professional photographic practice, and for under $30, probably about as close as I’m likely to get to a weekend workshop with someone like Mark, or Fink, or Webb & Norris Webb, or Hido.
Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude was the first to enter my collection, and I immediately found things in it to (hopefully) benefit my photography. Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation came almost a year later, and I didn’t really see much in it at first, but when I did, I immediately ordered Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image and this volume by Mark, and I assume they’ll both come to add something to my photography in time.
Mark was a portrait photographer, and a damn good one. You probably know her pictures of Tiny in her Halloween costume, or her portrait of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz, or maybe that little girl smoking in the kiddie pool. How did she manage to get such interesting, intimate, portraits? Well, read the book, and she’ll tell you.
Some part of it is luck: she’s on assignment somewhere and sees an interesting-looking couple emerge from a shop. She asks for a portrait, and the man jumps into a nearby tree. She takes a few frames, then his wife steps in. With luck, and some patience, and some work, and willing participants, she gets the shot of the Appalachian Couple.
“You have to wait for things to happen rather than overdetermine it. More often than not, the subject will do something you never would have dreamed of. Practice capturing a moment. A real moment that’s not directed, takes practice.” (35)
In almost all cases, Mark is patient, works the scene, works the subject, often for a long time and over multiple visits. She photographed Tiny for several decades, and worked with the Damm family many times, over 5 or 6 years. Access like this takes work, help, fixers, and there’s some responsibility attached.
For example, to photograph prostitutes in Bombay, Mark spent a week walking up and down Falkland Road with her camera, letting the people get used to her, before first going into a brothel. The women screamed and ran. She went back again; the women screamed and ran. She kept going back and eventually made friends with a madam who granted her access to one of the brothels. She made friends. She became part of the community. When the police raided, the women hid her. And, eventually, she got the pictures that became her book Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay.
Really, for Mark, it boils down to persistence, patience, and a willingness to be present, there with her subjects, to gain their trust, and to keep focused on the subjects, their moods and needs, and knowing when to put down the camera and help a little girl get ready for school.
Overall, I give on the Portrait and the Moment 3.8 stars.
Unlike other books in the series, Mark devotes nearly thirty pages (92-121) to photographs made by students in her Aperture workshops. I find it interesting to see how she talks about the work, but I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful otherwise, and it almost feels like an advertisement for Aperture’s workshops, rather than adding something. Other readers may find them more useful than I do (and in future readings, I might find more there too, if I’m honest).
Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment remains available direct from Aperture and at fine used bookstores too. If you’re into portraits, it’s a don’t miss.