A Q&A With Photographer Mary Ellen Mark

Johnny Misheff

Mary Ellen Mark is a photographer's photographer, whose work is always rewarding and raw. Her new book, Seen Behind the Scene: Forty Years of Photographing on Set, takes us on a trip into worlds seldom seen -- behind the scenes of some of the most memorable cinematic moments of our time.
I caught up with her at Kisan Concept Store, where she was signing copies, to talk about the book, her oeuvre and how she got a beetle to sit on Marlon Brando's head.

Let's get started, shall we? This new book of yours is a fantastic insider's look at some of Hollywood's biggest stars in their most candid behind-the-scenes moments. This is a break from the socially charged themes of a good majority of your oeuvre. What's it like shooting celebrities?
It's always different. You were given a different kind of access back then. Celebrity photography now, to me, it doesn't have the reality that you were granted then. And forget about Photoshop. To me, that takes away all the reality. Everything's been changed. It's no longer a photograph, it's an illustration. The moments we were granted in the the old days, those were real.

Yeah, that's the vibe you get from them. They're so candid. There's something so genuine and raw about them.
I never want to lose that rawness. I think that's really essential. I'm showing you a world and a special look at the people in that world and their lives. That's what I'm interested in. Not some over-polished, over-styled, over-make-upped piece of work.

You were on-hand during the shooting of Apocalypse Now. How was that?
I mean, it was so great being in such an extraordinary world that Francis Copolla created. He's one of our best American directors, and when you watch him work you can see why.

You've worked with a lot of great directors...
What's really helpful is when the director appreciates photography, and just lets you document what you're going to document. In a way, it's like photographing the works of art in a museum, because it's not your world. It's a world someone else has created. So, I try to catch that atmosphere. I've been so lucky, because I've been able to see the world of some of the greatest actors, producers and directors out there.

That shot you took of Marlon Brando with that huuuuge beetle on his head has just haunted me ever since I first saw it however long ago...
Whether you're working with actors or non actors or whoever, you kind of let them do what they're going to do. You know, with him, there was this jar of beetles nearby, and he just put one on his head.

That's amazing. With all of these shots, it's like you can tell that there's a bond between you and whoever it is you're shooting.
Well you're connecting with your subjects. It's definitely a relationship. Without question.

You teach that, among other aspects of your trade I imagine, at your workshop in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

I've been teaching there twice a year since 1994. I go in February for Carnivale as well as July. Some of my students have taken the course 12 times. It's for people of all levels. Some are advanced, and some are beginners, but they all get better.

You've decided to go back year after year.
Yeah, I know the place. I have an assistant that lives there, so that really helps. And we've met the best people down there. They have the best transvestites. The most out-there transvestites you've ever seen. So that's very good.

Amazing! I love it. Sounds like a wonderful project.
I consider it an on-going project. I really really love the town. It's pure, it hasn't been destroyed. Such a strong culture.

Any other projects you'd like to talk about?
I've been working on a project that will eventually be a book on the American prom. Martin is making a film, kind of like what we did with Twins. But now we've been going to proms all over the country.

Where have you been so far?
We've been to California, Texas, Charlottesville, the Cape, Philadelphia and around New York and New Jersey.

Any memorable moments you can get into?
Well every place has had kids that are really outstanding. We've always found in each prom something totally unique. And then I wanted one really well known good private school, so we went to Harvard Westlake in L.A. That was really interesting.

It's so cool you're doing that. I mean, every school definitely has its own dynamic, so it will be interesting to see how diverse this work will be... OK, random question. what's your favorite place on earth?
I love Mexico and I love India.

Oh, Mr Mickey's there now. They love him over there. What's up with India?
It's such a beautiful and crazy world. I did my book on prostitutes in Bombay. But, you know, every place I work, I bring back tons of memories.

Well your new book is FILLED with them. I'm so excited for everyone to see it! And thanks so much for your time.
It's been a pleasure.


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