Mary Ellen Mark Interview

Above: Mary Ellen Mark. Photo by Michael Underwood/Elevation Photos

Mary Ellen Mark - The United Nations of Photography


Mary Ellen Mark is one of the most revered and important portrait photographers in the world today. Her husband Martin Bell is an acclaimed filmmaker. Together over the last four years they have recorded the American prom. Grant Scott spoke to them both individually about the project that has resulted in a book, exhibition and film.

Martin: I’ve always been involved in filmmaking and she [Mary Ellen] suggested that I do the film. Mary Ellen has been involved in shooting high school proms for years and years, and she decided that she wanted to take a shot at them on the 20×24 Polaroid camera. We had already done a project together – a film and a book on twins – using the same format. Essentially, the Twins and Prom films were shot in the same way: very, very simply. There is no simpler way of making a film; it’s just putting two people in front of a backdrop and asking them a set of between 20 to 25 questions.

Grant: You say that it’s a simple film, but it is also a film with a lot of hidden depth and subtlety.
Martin: I agree with that; the kids are amazing. It’s a very special evening for them. So when they decide that they are going to stand in front of a camera, they are going to give you some pretty amazing answers. We shot a lot of material – something like 143 couples – so the film is a distillation of all those people. All of Mary Ellen’s images and my interviews were shot on the actual night of each prom. We’d have people out in the prom looking for couples that would be interesting to photograph. Then, after Mary Ellen had finished with them, they were asked if they would like to be interviewed and filmed by me. Most of them said yes. Sometimes people weren’t photographed by Mary Ellen, but they are in the film.

Grant: It’s a fascinating companion-piece project, because Mary Ellen’s portraits have a sense of permanence to them, whereas the film feels like a captured moment in time, which makes you imagine how their lives will pan out in the future.
Martin: I agree, that’s the beauty of it. In a photograph you can’t do that. You can’t get that sense of that; you just get that one instance. With the film you get a sense of what happened before and a feeling about what will happen in, say, 30 years’ time. In fact, that would be an extraordinary film to make; following up on where these kids end up.

Grant: Both yours and Mary Ellen’s approach to capturing Prom visually are very simplistic and, on the whole, serious in tone.
Martin: That’s true, nobody posed around. It’s an important night in these kids’ lives, so they took it seriously. You know it’s interesting, I showed this film in Iceland a while back in an art school, and one of the teachers there said that there was no way I could get these kinds of interviews from Icelandic kids. I doubt that, but I think that there is an openness in the American personality that allowed them to happen.

Grant: There are a lot of stories that come out of the interviews which are very touching, including the girl, Ashleigh, who has survived cancer.
Martin: I find her very moving. Some of the things she says about getting married and having kids and stuff; it’s very touching. There’s a depth to that because it is obvious that she has been through something pretty extreme.

Grant: When you were editing the film, were you referring to notes which you had taken whilst you were shooting the film?
Martin: As I’ve said, it is a very simple film, and the editing and thematic elements are in the questions. If you think about it, if you ask 100 people the same questions, you already have a theme. There was a core of questions, but obviously, as the conversations took place, these expanded. Things came up that I could never have imagined, so I went off before returning to the core questions.

Grant: Did you rely on finding the right people to photograph and film on the night?
Martin: No, prior research had been done through the photographic departments at the schools. Mary Ellen asked the photography teachers to recommend kids they thought she might find interesting. But once we had set up and were ready to go, we had interns with us who were finding more people on the night.

Grant: It must be difficult to get a broad section of people and not fall into the trap of tokenism or heavy-handed social construction.
Martin: In certain respects it is constructed. The schools themselves are constructed selections. There are schools which are incredibly affluent, like Harvard and Westlake; then others, like Malcolm X Shabazz in New Jersey, which are the extreme opposite. So you are getting a cross-section of America through the schools.

Grant: There is one guy in your film who is wearing a red cloak and hood who has taken his education very seriously; which is what we learn from the film. But if I had only seen him within Mary Ellen’s still, I would have had a very different impression of who he is, based purely on how he looks.
Martin: He’s from Malcolm X. Now, isn’t that interesting? I think that’s a very interesting point. The kids from Malcolm X; the fact that they were at the prom was a big deal, you know? The fact that they had made it through high school; they are achievers by just being there. And then to stand in front of a camera and say, “I’m going to show you part of me.” That’s a big thing too.

Grant: Do you think that this is a project that could expand internationally and as a snapshot of youth?
Martin: I think that’s a wonderful idea. I think that would be great. One of the limitations was the 20×24 camera. Shipping it and getting it to the locations was a big deal. In a way it restricted what we could do. So we don’t have any schools from the middle of America, they are all near big cities. So I’d loved to expand the project across America, but the idea of expanding it globally is a great idea also.

Grant: Mary Ellen was working with the 20×24, but what were you working with?
Martin: [laughs] It was very simple. We were using a Sony DSR-PD150. It’s digital but it records on to tape. It’s a very small camera. Mary Ellen had her own studio. Setting up lighting for her was a huge deal. Her camera needed a tremendous amount of light. She was working at ASA 64, with 40 strobe packs to get enough exposure. Our studio then had to be far enough away from the prom so that the music didn’t leak through, and it had to be totally independent from Mary Ellen’s studio, because when the strobes went off there was a big pop and flash of light.

Grant: The work does feel like two very separate projects, both visualy and through process.
Martin: When we did the Twins project it was exhibited in New York. You could walk around and look at Mary Ellen’s photographs in the gallery, then go into a separate room and see the film. First you came to the pictures and you were informed by what you saw. Then when you went into the film, the same people suddenly came to life in a different way. I think that’s the difference between photography and film.

Grant: Do you think Mary Ellen would have approached the people she was photographing differently if she had seen your film before meeting them?
Martin: [laughs] No, I don’t think so. [laughs] Mary Ellen has a very, very specific way in which she takes pictures. I just think that the process is so different. What is important in a still photograph is totally different to what is important in a film.

Grant: A lot of photographers are now starting to move into filmmaking. I think they could see your film as something they could attempt themselves, as it does have a synergy with photography and is so simply constructed.
Martin: Right, I would say that it is the most basic, simple way of telling a story that you could ever imagine; but then you have to choose a subject which lends itself to shooting that way. Both Prom and Twins work in the same way and have a range of emotions; they go from very funny to making you want to cry.

Grant: I found the Prom film to be very sad.
Martin: Some people do. We showed it at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville to 1,000 people, and the reaction was unbelievable. If this was a multimillion dollar picture you would think that you had a big hit on your hands. The audience laughed and laughed and laughed, then cried. I have never been in an audience that has had that kind of reaction to a film. I think it’s to do with the American experience. If you are an American you recognise yourself in those kids that represent you.

Grant: I think that you become attached to their stories. Is this a film that you are going to take into film festivals, or are you happy for it to find its own audience?
Martin: I don’t know the answer to that. The intention of the film was to be part of the book, to help promote it; that’s its function. If people want it in festivals they can approach us and we can make it available; it’s just part of the process of making films. The film took a long time to edit; almost a year. We shot at 12 high schools in 10 cities over four years.

Grant: What’s the next project?
Martin: [laughs] I don’t know, I wish I did. There will be one I’m sure.

Grant: There could be 60 or 70 feature films at least that could come out of Prom, if you chose to follow the characters’ stories.
Martin: That is true; but then you have to be a brilliant writer. [laughs]

Grant: Or you could just keep filming them.
Martin: Like a feature-length documentary or narrative? Maybe. I’ve never been very good at selling my stuff. That’s a gift that belongs to a different personality, I think. We’ve tried in the past and failed miserably. I think someone might come along and say that they’d like to make it into an hour-long feature, or an international film. But sell it to television? I don’t know how to do that. Maybe the outcome of this conversation is that we get a sale and you get a commission. [laughs]

Mary Ellen: Prom is something I have worked on for years, but in a different style. I’ve previously photographed it in more of a documentary style, capturing the moment. I guess I saw it as a rite of passage; an American custom. I’ve photographed it on 35mm and medium format cameras; trying to capture teenagers at this important moment in their lives. When I started to use the 20×24 I thought that this was the perfect project for that camera. I’ve been working with it for about 15 years; initially as a portrait camera when I worked a lot for magazines. That’s before magazines changed so much. Now they’re filled with composite-type pictures. I don’t work for magazines so much any more; I’m not a ‘Photoshop Fake’ photographer. Today magazines use more illustration than photography. When magazines were interested in reality I loved working with the Polaroid camera; particularly for The New Yorker. There’s no better way to capture reality than with a 20×24 camera.

Grant: But I understand from Martin that transporting the camera placed certain limitations on the project.
Mary Ellen: It’s definitely a big deal travelling with it. When I worked with it as a portrait camera it was always in the studio. The first personal project I shot with it was Twins. We did travel with it on that project on a seven-hour drive, but only to one place, and then we set up a studio. Prom was different, as it meant travelling to a number of different cities, which was logistically complex. So we sort of went around the country, to Texas, New England, New Jersey, around New York of course and to California.

Grant: Martin explained to me that even though this was a joint project, you work separately.
Mary Ellen: In a sense we work together and separately. Martin designed the lighting for both Twins and Prom, because both needed to be lit very cinematically with many, many lights and lots of nets and scrims, because we needed to take away light. What you see is what you get in a Polaroid; although it’s no longer Polaroid, it’s called 20×20 print. You can’t make changes in the darkroom. It’s sort of the opposite of digital. You can’t say, “We’ll fix it afterwards.” So we had to carefully light each shot, both with Twins and Prom. If you shoot someone in a white dress you have to deal with that immediately by putting in nets and flags and dealing with the lighting. It’s challenging. You also have to make immediate decisions about the scale of the picture and how you are going to shoot it, because the film’s so expensive. I learned a lot by working with this camera, about what you want, the subject, the distance the camera should be from the subject. It’s not like shooting with a film camera, which lets you shoot in many different ways and decide on what you want later. You have to make your decisions immediately.

Grant: Both your images and Martin’s film have an emotional intensity. Your images are iconic and Martin’s film adds the extra details of the voice, colour and movement.
Mary Ellen: What’s really nice about the project is that you can see the photographs and through the film the subjects come alive; it adds another level. You can go deeper into who the people really are. The other thing, which was really interesting and what we tried to show, was the economic differences between the kids. You don’t always see that. Everyone loves prom, everyone dresses beautifully and perfectly, so you can’t tell the difference between rich and poor until they talk about their hopes and their dreams. Privilege gives these young people a step up; they have more confidence; not that privilege makes them bad people, it doesn’t. It’s just that they’re luckier.

© Grant Scott 2012

You can read the rest of this conversation by purchasing our In Conversation e-book with Mary Ellen Mark.

Prom: Mary Ellen Mark, with film DVD by Martin Bell
J. Paul Getty Museum. £34.95
ISBN-13: 978-1606061084

Each book is just 99p (or international equivalent) each and consists of one interview with one of the world’s most influential, inspirational and iconic photographers allowing you to create your own digital archive of unique photographic conversation.

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Mary Ellen Mark - The United Nations of Photography