Meeting Mary Ellen

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By Philip Wright for Leicaphilia. All photos by Mr. Wright.

The first time I met Mary Ellen Mark we were in Oaxaca, Mexico and she asked me if she could see the back of my camera. “Excuse me?” I mumbled, somewhat overawed, a tad bemused and probably more than a little jet-lagged, having arrived from Melbourne, Australia just the day before. “Would you mind turning your Leica around so I can see the back?” Her first ever words to me. Repeated patiently, as if to a slightly dull child. I’d worn the camera as it was day one of a ten-day workshop with this master photographer that I’d been gifted as a very generous Christmas present from my wife and family.

I finally comprehended, turned around my M6TTL and saw a big smile make its way across Mary Ellen Mark’s face. No LCD screen. “Oh that’s really good, you’re using film. I don’t mind if people use digital but I do like to see that there’s still a few people using film in these workshops.”

It was March, 2011, and the digital maelstrom really did seem to be sweeping all before it. Dangling around the necks of fellow workshoppers was a swag of shiny new (and big!) full-frame Canons and Nikons, plus the odd M9. Yet maybe half of us had film cameras – Leicas of all ages, Nikons, Mamiyas, a Contax, a Bronica, a Holga.

We were gathered in the beautiful ancient hall of what had become an arts centre in St. Augustine on the outskirts of Oaxaca for item one on the workshop agenda: portfolio reviews. It was fascinating to see each participant nervously place her or his work on the large table. I’m not really sure what I expected to see, but the variety of approaches and styles was flabbergasting. Mary Ellen had an innate ability to instantaneously grasp what level the student was at, and what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. Often this wasn’t at first obvious to the casual observer, but she was always spot on. Realizing that people were generally baring their very souls with the work, she’d couch her response to that person’s work with affirmative, guiding observations and advice, often asking questions about why they’d chosen a particular approach or what their overriding interest and intent was. This encouragement became somewhat contagious, as gradually more and more of the group joined in with expressing positive remarks about the work.

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My own turn eventually came and my portfolio was met with some encouraging remarks – words that will stay with me forever. Her advice to me for the duration of the workshop was to find one thing, apart from the set excursions that were pre-organized, and stick with it. “Preferably find a family” she casually added, as if it would be the most natural thing in the world to somehow find some willing family in a country I’d never been to before, who spoke a language I didn’t understand, and convince them I needed to revisit them multiple times in order to take photographs. Yeah, right.

A couple of days of organized photo shoots followed. In and around Oaxaca at that time of year there are many festivals and parades, and the local people adopt a festive mood and are completely welcoming of a bunch of loco gringos with cameras. What wonderful sights and sounds we were witness to! Brass bands marching in the streets, insane grease-covered semi-naked men taking over town jangling bells and wearing cow horns, transvestites parading at dusk – click, click click! Crazy!

Each day we were allotted a time when we’d have a ten-minute one-on-one review of the previous day’s shoot with Mary Ellen. So each night the deal would be: drop the film and pick up work prints at the appointed lab; then each morning pick up the developed film and contact sheets ready for the review.

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My review time was allocated at 12:10, so whatever I was doing that morning I had to ensure I’d be back in time. Mary Ellen liked you to have up to five contact sheets to look over, though sometimes I had six or seven and she didn’t mind. She’d quickly zap over each frame with a large Mamiya loupe, occasionally hovering over one picture or maybe comparing two similar ones. Anything she liked would get a yellow paper dot stuck next to it. It was a matter of pride how many dots you got each day, and people would often compare dot scores, even though talking about your pictures or showing them to others was considered strictly out-of-bounds. As if that was ever going to float! Anyway if you were lucky enough to get a yellow dot or two you were then encouraged to get 5” X 7” work prints made of those frames, so you dropped off those negatives to the lab along with your undeveloped film from the day’s shooting.

Mary Ellen didn’t say too much during those one-on-ones, but her words were chosen carefully. If you were erring into the realm of touristy shots she’d steer you off that course. One day I’d taken a small series of pictures of a lady making tortillas and she advised not to do “how to” shots. She wasn’t crazy about vertical shots and she strongly encouraged uncluttered frames. On the other hand if you had latched onto a subject that was looking interesting she’d point that out, too, often asking whether it was possible to go back for more. “Go back – you should always go back” was one of her mantras. So, following these sessions, freshly armed with her advice and observations, you’d eagerly face the afternoon’s assignment with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. After all, one of the truly great photographers of all time had just encouraged you on your way – how could you not respond?

One day I’d spent the morning photographing at the town dump with one of the other attendees, Ariadna, who’d attended a couple of previous workshops. Many, if not most, attendees were there for the second or more time – one girl was on her tenth workshop! Following my portfolio review that afternoon Mary Ellen suggested I again hitch a ride out of town with Ari, who was going to revisit a family she’d photographed a number of times previously. “OK” I said, before prompting “er, what will I do?” “Oh, you should try to find a family and make some pictures with them.” Uh-huh. Delusional, I thought. Mary Ellen then added “And take some oranges – just to have something you can give in return.”

Ari’s subject family lived in a dusty remote place some way out of town. Once she got out I said to our driver, who was part of Mary Ellen’s organizational crew, “Right. Now where will we go to find a family to take pictures of?” He looked at me with something between pity and petulance in his eyes. “Not we. You. I’m going to have lunch.” “But… what am I going to do?” I asked, wondering, indeed, what I was going to do. “Don’t worry,” he said assuringly, slipping the car back into gear. “Something will turn up. I’ll see you back here in two hours.”

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Did I mention it was hot? Hot, dusty and, for all intents and purposes, slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Ari had of course by now vanished from sight, so I started walking down the road, observing the distinct lack of houses, shops or any building for that matter that might conceivably contain a family. Still, I thought, I have my trusty camera with me! So I started taking a picture of a cactus, a tumbleweed, or a buzzard tearing into some previous photographer’s bones or something. When I turned back to the road two young boys were approaching. “Hola” I said, demonstrating in one fell swoop most of my Spanish vocabulary. They replied “Hola. Una fotografía?” Thinking “Here’s a stroke of luck, I might get one picture after all!” I went to get my camera out of the bag but they said “No” and indicated I should follow them.

Now back in Australia – this stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. Camera, middle-aged guy, children – that’s pretty much enough to get you into some very precarious territory with the hysteria crowd. But, hey, what the heck! Mexico had already demonstrated to me that it didn’t share the hang-ups of certain advanced Western democracies. So I followed. A couple of hundred meters later we were at their casa and, much to my relief, Mama was home and I was welcomed inside. There were five children altogether and Papa came home for lunch, too. The two boys I’d met explained that I was going to take some pictures and suddenly, everywhere I looked, I had the most incredible subjects vying to be in a picture, and a delicious lunch was set for me. I fumbled out my miserable offering of oranges and it turned out to be the most wonderful couple of hours. Before I left, remembering what Mary Ellen had said, I asked in my best attempt at Spanish, if I could return. They said yes and I was over the moon.

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All told I went back there three times, once taking with me Leslie, an American workshopper who was at loose ends one day. It was so nice to get to know this wonderful family a little bit, and I made sure I took gifts and work prints each time. I’ve kept in contact with them via Leslie and am pleased that she has subsequently visited the family numerous times and has even exhibited her pictures of them in New York City!

So, at the end of the workshop, two of the three pictures Mary Ellen chose of mine to go on the final day’s “honour board” were of that family. Later that year, my wife Sue and I, along with Morganna who was another workshopper from Melbourne, went up to Sydney and spent a lovely evening with Mary Ellen and her assistant Chae, who yet again was an attendee at the same workshop. They were there to photograph on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and had shipped the big 20” X 24” Polaroid camera over to Australia for portraits of the actors, although Chae indicated that Mary Ellen was generally a lot happier snapping with her film Leica.

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In May 2015 we heard the unexpected and terrible news that Mary Ellen had passed away. It is hard to put into words the sense of this loss. She was one of few whose work I venerated. In meeting her I came to understand a little about what a genuinely lovely and compassionate person she was, and her passing will affect many people deeply. Yet she leaves such a wonderful legacy – not just of photographs, but also of her wisdom, her teaching and her refusal to accept anything other than the very best you can do.

And if there’s one thing I will never ever forget, it is her advice to “Go back. You should always go back.”