Friday, December 2, 2011

Inspirations series 3: Mary Ellen Mark

It’s been a shamefully long time between posts, exacerbated by travel, and my fascination with the new life growing inside me. Here, finally, is the post on the fabulous portrait and documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark (b 1940-).  

I am blown away by Mark's work. I would include her whole catalogue here if I could! It’s been hugely rewarding researching her work for this post, and delving into why she pushes my buttons on so many artistic and visceral levels. 

Burning Ghat, Benares, India, 1989. Source.

Her images are sometimes dreamy and gently comical, but more often stark and hugely confronting, like the one that first grabbed my attention from Women Photographers of National Geographic (but one I couldn't track down on the web). It was of an Aboriginal woman in Sydney in 1988, her eye swollen and blackened from being kicked by her partner. This was a very telling and important photograph at the time most of Australia was celebrating 200 years since European settlement.

In exploring such areas as homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness, and prostitution, Mark seems intrigued by the outcast, the marginalised exile, and she gives us a pass into their worlds often beyond barriers of class and culture.  Somehow, she gains the trust of her subjects and delivers so many layers of raw impact, generally shooting in black and white. Here is humanity; unapologetically exposed and flawed, and such a breath of fresh air.  

As a photographer, I'm intrigued by the audacity, luck/magic and exquisite timing it must take to create work like this. It can be difficult to overcome the practical and emotional distance from subjects.  Oh yes. This is not something Mary Ellen Mark struggles with! Too often it's so tempting to stay lazy, buffered and manipulative with portraiture, to play with sentiment and effect.  Ms Mark, thanks for the reminder that photography can encompass so much more of who we are and what the subject brings.

Mark’s work contradicts common assumptions about documentary photography and photography in general with her larger symbolic and perhaps mythic dimensions, making her work more like art.  To me, this conjures some of the themes of Joyce Tenneson’s work, albeit with more social and environmental context.

The obsessions we have are pretty much the same our whole lives. Mine are people, the human condition, life.

The Damm Family in their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA, 1987. Source.

From the beginning of her career, her images showed how she could put her subjects at ease. They would accept the process to the extent that they were able and willing to significantly participate in the process.* This collaboration seems to embody a kind of mysterious and ever-shifting creative dance.

In Charles Hagan's book, Mary Ellen Mark says “...You have to learn a certain diplomacy when you’re doing documentary. You have to be able to understand very quickly the framework of every situation you find yourself in, and be able to take command, in order to get the pictures you want”.

It’s an interesting balance. A quote like the above seems to suggest in Mark a calculated need to control and direct her subjects. She has the terrier tenacity to repeatedly keep coming back, despite initially protesting subjects, to get the shots she has in mind. Yet, this dogged dedication to her vision and artistic intuition has created a massive catalogue, images of great beauty and power. Perhaps this is just the balance Mark has needed to strike to gain entry into these closed communities. In her story on teenage runaways in Seattle in 1983, Mark revealed that rather than taking time to build rapport, she prefers to “...start shooting straight away – always.  If you don’t, you’re misrepresenting your role in the situation”.  After all, as Mark has also been quoted here as saying, you owe them this truth. “You’re taking some of their soul”.  Wow. Did she really say that?!

The Man Who Loved His Tree, Uttar Pradesh, India, 1989. Source.

This degree of honesty about the photographer-subject dynamic and Mark’s undeniable self-belief is fascinating to me. She can step into such confronting situations, stand true in who she is and why she’s there, and not be squeamish about the toll she’s asking, as I would tend to be. Perhaps that is just what works, and what makes this photographer a kind of genius creative conduit that her subjects (and then her fans) agree to engage with.  The impact and scale of Mark's work can't be denied. There truly is such radiant truth and beauty here, and it opens the heart.

Whatever the process, Mark’s most beloved subject, the exile, the outsider, most often used to marginalised, disempowering treatment, seems here to be shown largely as they are, without sentimentality or artifice. The unbuffered human condition in all its frailty and strength.

Tiny in Her Halloween Costume, Seattle, Washington, USA. Mark was drawn to Tiny, a 13 year old prostitute, and returned to photograph her many times. Tiny is now married with nine children.  Source.

Beautiful Emine Posing, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965. Source.

Jennifer, Tiffany, and Carrie, Portsmouth Ohio, 1989. Source.

Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, USA, 1990. Source.

The shots above floor me. They seem to present a theme in the photographer's work, as Hagan suggests, a conflict between competing signals which can be jarring and fascinating to the observer. Here we see children struggling to fit into adult roles they don’t fully understand or aren’t really ready for. Little girls, in poses and behaviours that usually belong to adult women. This seems a rather familiar trend these days too. 

In single frames, Mark delivers depictions of entrenched social issues that far surpass dry statistics. It hits at gut-level, and yet what is the outcome? If, as I said earlier, this work opens the heart, do we feel moved to more connection with the uncomfortable reality of these issues? Do we feel more optimistic about the prospect of change, and moved to help? Or does this same quality that makes us pour over her work, have an element of the hungry voyeur peering and leering into forbidden worlds?  In an era of media saturation and over-commercialisation, are we desperate for things that are gritty and real? Do we end up feeding off people who have so little, before we sink back to our everyday comforts and privileges? Is it ethical for Mark to express her creativity in a way that uses bits of marginalised people’s souls as paint on a canvas?? Lordy. I am complicit, and painted too in all these shades of grey.

Rant satisfied, back to the normal programming...

An intriguing partner to the realism of much Mark’s work is the almost dreamy element of fantasy, theatre, and fairy tales. She has been drawn to spend time with circuses in India, Mexico and Vietnam, places where “...the line between everyday life and the theatre is constantly blurred”*.  Instead of focusing on the crowds and shows themselves, it is the performers behind-the-scenes that fill the frame. For many of them, there is a sense of pride in their celebrity stature, but they are anonymous outside their small world, and shown to be very human, often seeking the companionship of animals.   

Acrobats Rehearsing Head-to-Head, Great Golden Circus,
Ahmedabad, India, 1990. Source.

Ram Prakash Sing with his Elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1990. Source.

Contortionist with Sweety the Puppy, Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta, India, 1989. Source.

Monkey Trainer's Daughter, New Delhi, 1980. Source.

Perhaps this love of exploring closed theatrical worlds was stimulated by Mary Ellen Mark’s work shooting production stills in the 60s and 70s for such classics as Apocalypse Now, Alice’s Restaurant, and Fellini’s Satyricon. What a life! She says there was “...much more freedom then”. Today, movies are big money and big business, and her level of access is controlled and diminished by financial and time pressures.

Marlon Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now, Pagsanjan, Philippines, 1976. Source.

Fellini on the set of Satyricon, Rome, 1969. Source.

The cast of one flew over the Cuckoo's Nest posing for their photograph on location at the Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1974. Source.
Touring the maximum security ward of an Oregon mental hospital where Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed, Mark was so moved that she returned 5 years later and spent over a month shooting and interviewing the women confined on the ward. These images were published in American Photographer magazine, and eventually, as the outstanding book Ward 81 (1979). While often distressing images, as in Mark’s other works, these women were presented with an unapologetic dignity and humanity. 

Feet strapped down in bed, Ward 81, 1976. Source.

Similarly, her work with prostitutes on Bombay’s Falkland Road pack a huge emotional punch, and I find them hard to look at. The word ‘powerful’ doesn’t do them justice, and the element of colour (insisted on by Geo’s editors) brings a new dimension of vividness to the squalor of the rooms, and suggested activities therein, combined with the women’s colourful saris. Perhaps the reason why images from India have been so featured in Mark's work, and in this post, are because this country does have such heart-breaking and fascinating contrasts and extremes.

Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978-9. Source.

There has been much debate about how Mary Ellen Mark's style is classified, whether documentary or portrait photography, but more interesting to me is the complex interplay of what she brings to each shoot and the vivid emotional power and strength she manages to invite from her subjects. It says just as much about our own ideas about belonging and vulnerability, and strips off our own masks as we absorb the works. Sometimes all these facets can be acutely uncomfortable! Mary Ellen Mark’s talent and tenacity is undeniable, and inspirational.  

As Charles Hagan writes, “Her photographs show us the lives of others, whether social outcasts or film stars, in all their strangeness and beauty. At the same time, they enact deeper truths, of the sort usually reserved for the most far-reaching fiction”.

*Huge thanks to Charles Hagan whose book Mary Ellen Mark contained the quotes that weren't otherwise attributed (and many of the themes) contained in the above post.      

Monday, August 22, 2011

Inspirations series 2: Women Photographers at National Geographic

Around the year 2000, a series of seemingly insignificant and tedious decisions led me to a book shop's bargain table. There on the cover of a book, was an image of such understated beauty and intimacy. 

Covered by a blanket of sand from a dry lake bed, a family naps in the middle of the afternoon. Photograph by Joanna Pinneo, Mali, 1998.

All my 'Inspirations' stories seem to start the same way. With a jolt of recognition and resonance. The little voice inside gleeful and insistent: "This is important!!" The book was Women Photographers at National Geographic, Cathy Newman, NG 2000. Thumbing through it, I stood at that table for over half an hour, lost in this book and its images from all around the world. These were photographs that captured an incredible diversity, but also carried an undercurrent of something a lot more familiar, precious shared human experience. Simultaneously fascinating to me was the story in each frame, but also the story of the photographer's journey and all she brought to that moment. Eventually, the voice inside lost patience. "For god's sake, woman, it's a bargain, and it's life-changing! Pay up and take the treasure home".

With so many books, I've been initially passionate about them, but they've gathered dust while time passed, and many years later they've proven to be loaded with just the information and inspiration I've been looking for in my new life stage and level of understanding/readiness. So it was with this one.  Every couple of years, I'd be drawn to take it down off my shelf and marvel anew at its pictures and the worlds within, a guaranteed antidote to youthful ennui. Look what it is possible to create. Look what is out there!

Finally, I satisfied some of my wanderlust, and my world view broadened and deepened. A theme to my passions developed. My partner fell in love with wildlife photography, his skills fueled by a complete obsession with all things green, feathered or furred. I found myself filling my frame with people. Girls and women in particular. I was fascinated to observe and photograph women's days and rhythms, how they mothered, what made them laugh, how they related to other women, what cultural and economic factors seemed to shape their lives (as viewed through the filters of my own Western perspective, of course). I was ravenous for all their untold stories. Frustratingly, I was limited by language, inferior equipment, and a crippling shyness that saw me loathe to intrude or 'feed upon' the everyday intimacies I witnessed. Not a productive combination! The camera would often create a feeling of distance when I did make a connection, or I experienced it that way. Here I was, often in very poor villages, flashing around my white skin and my expensive gadgets, and it was a dynamic I rarely felt comfortable with. Nonetheless, there were so many moments of humbling kindness and intimacy with girls and women where all of the barriers were easily shed, often when I least expected it.

In writing this post, I tried to track down on the web many of the book's images that so affected me. Strangely, most of them were not available, ... or not so strangely. Most of the pictures were featured in National Geographic magazines, before everything went online. Instead, I searched my favourite photographers' online presence, and my, they have been busy. It was a pleasure to see how each woman's career developed, and what each chose to focus on. In choosing which shots to feature, I've also tried to include many of the stories from in front of and behind the camera. If you're like me at all, you'll find this makes enjoyment of each photograph so much richer. Be warned that some of the following images will be confronting to some readers.

Lynn Johnson

Grandmother and baby, Guizhou Province, China. Toughened by a lifetime of fieldwork, the hands of a za, or elder woman, provide loving care for her grandson, who wears a traditional hat adorned in silver. Lynn Johnson, National Geographic

From the article 'Deadly Contact - How Animals and Humans Exchange Disease' published in National Geographic Oct 2007

A Tibetan father and son on a pilgrimage around China's Mount Kailas, Lynn Johnson National Geographic, May 2010

Health worker holding a child, India. Her fingers gnarled by leprosy suffered as a teenager, Sakubai Gite examines a two-year-old girl she delivered and still cares for in India. Lynn Johnson, NG Apr 2011

Maggie Steber

©2000 Maggie Steber
A Mother's Funeral
Haiti, 1987 Featured PDN

Natalie Fobes

Women take a break from the tedium of work at a salmon-canning factory in Poronaysk, Sakhalin Island, Russia. The cannery operates as part of a collective and pays workers according to their team's production. Natalie Fobes, 1990 NG 

Dickey Chapelle

Dickey was an amazing American war correspondent photojournalist who covered conflicts from World War II to Vietnam for National Geographic. She covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, jumped with paratroopers, and even spent 7 weeks in jail when captured during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Dickey was a tiny woman, renowned for her refusal to kowtow to authority and her signature uniform: fatigues, an Australian bush hat, dramatic Harlequin glasses, and pearl earrings. She lost her life not long after this image was taken, when on patrol with a marine platoon in Chu Lai, Vietnam. The lieutenant in front of her kicked a tripwire, and her carotid artery was severed by a piece of shrapnel. You can read more about her here and see the poignant photo by Henri Huet of Dickey receiving the last rites. Seriously, when is the Dickey Chapelle Hollywood biopic coming out??
A medic, his own face bandaged, tends to a wounded soldier in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Dickey Chapelle 1965. Image from here.

Jodi Cobb
Doctor, Dhahran. Pioneers in any profession, relatively few Saudi women have entered the work force—despite a boom in education created by the kingdom’s oil wealth—and usually in fields where they won’t come into contact with men. Baby boys are another matter: Dr. Hanan Ali al-Subeai examines a newborn at Airbase Military Hospital in Dhahran. Her ghata, or head covering, is considered a veil. Photograph by Jodi Cobb from From “Women of Saudi Arabia,” October 1987, National Geographic magazine.

Grieving but stoic, Noi Kamsai sits at the bedside of her 35-year-old son, Sawo ng, dying of AIDS. This will be her second son to die of the disease. Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photograph by Jodi Cobb, NG.

Alexandra Avakian

Actress on a movie set, Kish Island, Iran. Photograph by Alexandria Avakian, featured in her book Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World.

Joanna Pinneo

From the grrlstories project 2001

Melissa Farlow

This was one of my most cherished images from the book so many years ago. It is only in finding it again that my hubby reminded me we visited this very monastery in Arequipa, Peru on our travels in 2008. 
Moved by the spirit of play, novices at Santa Catalina Monastery bat a ball in the courtyard, an approved activity for their transition to the cloistered life. Peru, 1998. Photograph by Melissa Farlow (part of the Louisville team who won a Pulitzer prize in 1976 for photographic coverage of desegregation)

Maria Stenzel

Buddhist monk, Tibet. Sunlight and devotional lamps lit by a Buddhist monk illuminate the interior of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet. Inside the massive temple are some of Buddhism's most important icons, including the famed Jowo Rinpoche statue—a seated Buddha installed when Buddhism was adopted by Tibetan royalty in the seventh century. Photograph by Maria Stenzel, NG.

I find myself intrigued by these courageous women; on assignment, often cold, wet, hungry, lonely, exhausted. What keeps them going? What keeps them pushing beyond the buffers of their own comfort and familiarity? Why do they do what they do? and finally, is there really a difference in a woman's photography; a woman's creative eye?

In Cathy Newman's interviews with many of the NG photographers featured in the book, she asked  similar questions, and had these responses:
To preserve the incandescent, precious moment
To peel back a curtain
To bear witness, even if it breaks your heart
To find a connection between work and oneself
To seek solid ground, perhaps even a home, for oneself
For the experience
For the sheer pleasure of it
To change the world

To show that people have the same needs; the commonality of joy, sorrow, hope,and fear.
And in looking for the moment between moments there is joy

In a more general sense, Newman reflects that the power of the photographs is in their capture of an instant that broadens into an eternity, connecting then with now and here with there. We who enjoy the images, share in this moment between moments "and laugh and cry and dance as well". 
(Women Photographers at National Geographic, Newman, Cathy. 2000, pgs 230-237)
In the words of Lynn Johnson whose work was sampled earlier in the post:
"As a woman, it is not enough to have form and color and light. I want to stand in the middle of a room where people are laughing, crying, and dancing. I want immersion instead of arm's-length distance."

Like a novel that leaves you sobbing, a wonderful image can help you live and breathe and feel compassion for another life. Of course, it doesn't take ownership of a vagina to corner the market on this perspective, but there do seem to be intimate nuances in the way many women choose their subjects, and frame their shots that create something different and special, and particularly empowering considering the obstacles overcome. Often their male colleagues were far from supportive. Jodi Cobb, a staff photographer for the National Geographic Society for over 30 years says in the freedom forum

"I never had the luxury of taking a chance that could result in failure. ... I had to do a lot of jobs that didn't interest me just to prove I could do the stuff that the guys did. I could hang out of a helicopter. I could go underwater. I could go by horseback or whitewater raft. ... It wasn't where I was as a photographer, but I felt I couldn't stand up and say, 'I don't want to do that' because I felt that would limit more women's chances." 

Being a woman made her job harder, but in other ways admitted her to closed and secret worlds, barred to men. Cobb is renowned for her coverage of Geishas in Japan and Saudi women. 

The next Inspirations post will be on Mary Ellen Mark, one of the National Geographic photographers who was a standout for me all those years ago. Her work and career have set me on fire anew, and she more than deserves a post all her own.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Inspirations Series 1: Joyce Tenneson

Here is the first of my 'Inspirations' series; a chance to nod and gush with gratitude to those photographers, painters and other sources who have been pivotal in shaping my creative style, passions and view of the world.

Joyce Tenneson

In my mid twenties I picked up a 'Black & White' magazine in a newsagent, and felt a deep-gut urge to make it mine. Sure there were scores of arty, nudie pictures in there, but during the flick through, I found myself  transfixed by the work of American fine art photographer Joyce Tenneson. The magazine was thick and pricey, but in that moment the hunger for art and inspiration won out over a fledgling masseuse's practical concerns like rent money and massage oil!

Tenneson's images showed women at different stages of life, nude or wrapped in swathes of fabric, stark and exposed, yet sensual and ethereal. I was floored by the question of how two-dimensional images could seem to probe deeply into who the subject (and viewer) was, beneath all the masks?  The photos wriggled under my skin, and resonated on a much broader and deeper level I didn't understand until about a decade later, when I re-discovered her work. The young woman I was, pinned these three prints from the magazine on her wall. Yes, they were beautiful, but I wanted to remind myself of the importance of something they represented.

Dasha, Russia 1998 © Joyce Tenneson
Sheryl, America, 1997 © Joyce Tenneson

Lola Santos © Joyce Tenneson

I displayed them in this order. It seems clear to me now, that the pictures mirrored something that would become vitally important to me: the transitions of a girl/woman's journey and psyche. Girl - Woman/Mother - Wise Woman. The girl stares straight at the camera, confronting and opening to life's possibilities. "Who am I?" Then, the heavily pregnant woman, eyes shut, turning inward, creating and growing. Finally, the old woman, secure in her skin with a kind of melancholy peace and wisdom, the girl transformed. The images:
"...captured the spirit and sensuality of the individual subjects while connecting them to a deeper iconography of womanhood."
          (Cavenett, B&W, 2001)

Ahh, the intriguing delights of inspiration. The richness of Tenneson's understanding as she shoots her subjects, her heart, curiosity and the gifts of her personal knowing seem to shine through and layer themselves in the medium. Then folk like me chance upon them, and the symbols resonate, we absorb with subtle wonder and recognition, and accept what we need for the next step on our paths. How wonderful to realise that looking at the same pictures can affect me so differently and reveal even more, ten years later. It certainly doesn't seem to work in linear ways. An artist at a earlier point in her own journey can enrich me at a later stage of mine.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Heraclitus of Ephesus

The threads of mentoring, creativity, and ideas dance their way through the world's community in fascinating ways - that part of a song you just have to sit up and pay attention to, and play again and again; getting out in the natural world; those delicious paintings and books that can shake up and turn around what you take to be normal and right and real. Even faffing about on the 'net -  following a thread from one blog or website to another to another, and finding something that makes you wake up and fill up. 

Many writers such as Tolkien and Emily Bronte said they 'channelled' their great works... maybe they just plugged in to the great pulsing web of inspiration and had an awareness of the openness of mind and spirit needed to create. After my own struggles and creative blocks, I can also see the necessity of balancing the air with the earth. Having one's feet deep in the dirt seems to be needed to bring that creation, fully-formed into the world, to earth the fiery/airy vision and nourish it as it sprouts. I love the part of the process when the Flow in words/camera/paint become effortless and very addictive. Maybe that's when 'the Muses' turn up to dance.

Tenneson herself, cites Joseph Campbell's  'The Hero With A Thousand Faces' as a major influence in her life. She says:

"I've always been interested in myths, universal themes, and truths that seem to be present in all cultures. Therefore, when I read Campbell, it was thrilling... Campbell writes that all myths deal with a transformation of consciousness of one kind or another- either by trials or illuminating revelations.... In myths, the spiritual warrior returns from his or her journey transformed, and bearing the gift of the ordeal. All societies are enriched by these gifts."
 Illuminations (Bulfinch/Little Brown, 1997). 

My girlish self recognised these themes in Tenneson's work. I loved the idea of being a warrior, on a spiritual quest, woo hoo!, with the world's mysteries opening up as I weathered the joys and ordeals of life. There was a kind of cultural rhythm to these stories that tugged, and kept playing out all around me.

I find myself in the Woman stage now, intrigued by the path to Motherhood.  Check out all the preggy bumps and babies on the site! How much is my readiness for the next big spiritual 'ordeal', and how much hormones and evolutionary programming??  Humans sure are interesting animals. How will my work and creativity evolve as I transition into new quests and life stages? Tenneson's images will no doubt reveal something new when I look at them again in another ten years.

Woman and Globe © Joyce Tenneson

Dr Johnetta Cole © Joyce Tenneson

Sir Ben Kingsley © Joyce Tenneson

Family portrait 03 © Joyce Tenneson

2002 © Joyce Tenneson

Christine Lee © Joyce Tenneson

Huge thanks to Ms Tenneson for allowing me to feature her images, and acknowledge her immense talents and influence.

Finally, a quote that captures the heart of how I hope to approach and develop my own work. 

"I want to allow others to reveal and celebrate aspects of themselves that are usually hidden. My camera is a witness. It holds a light up for my subjects to help them feel their own essence, and gives them the courage to collaborate in recording these revelations." Joyce Tenneson.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Of hearth and forest

A recent weekend, saw the invitation to spend some time in the 'green goodness' of the hills. Gingerhobo and I were the guests of dear friends who have long been promised a family shoot. It was a much-needed chance to kick back with a bevvy, a crackling fire and damned fine conversation, and most importantly, be treated to an experience of work that didn't feel like work! The chance for a whole weekend with a family, as opposed to just a 3 hour shoot, really opened up the opportunities for 'shooters and subjects' to relax and let the juiciest, unposed shots emerge. How precious to observe and record the dynamics, joys, and frustrations of a delightful and very devoted family-of-four going about their days. I love the playful moments of connection that so jump from these shots. How palpable is the love? I do feel profoundly honoured to bear witness to this, and do what brings me such pleasure. 

Lily, pensive on the stairs

siblings bonded

scary baby. run!!

Pappa and son

long-suffering Dad

Finn and his Mamma

clapping in the garden


the menfolk

foresty fam

My favourite shot of day 1 - so much going on, familial love and chaos

yes, heart officially melted

cheeky hijinks


my fave of day 2 - what a moment

Finn, refusing to play along!

radiantly beautiful Mum-of-two, writer, actor, crafty minx, spiritual guru: Kat