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ExposureReview - Exposure
by Mary Ellen Mark
Phaidon, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Dec 26th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 52)

Exposure is a collection of documentary photographs from the last 40 years of Mary Ellen Mark's work.  Mark has for her whole career been fascinated by the people at the margin's of different society; one of her first books was Ward 81, showing images of a locked ward at Oregon State Mental Institution.  After she had been on assignment for a magazine to cover the making of the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was shot in an empty ward of the same institution, she and Karen Folger Jacobs were given permission to stay interview and photograph the women on Ward 81 in 1976.  They spent over a month with the women, and the resulting book was a rare glimpse into the treatment of mentally ill female criminals.  The ward was closed the next year. 

Mark has worked on a series of other projects, showing young prostitutes in India, Mother Theresa's Missions of Charity, street people and homeless people in the USA, an Indian circus, and many portraits.  All the photographs from her books are available, in small format, on her website.  Exposure provides a modest set (it is 288 pages) from her life's work selected by Mark herself.  She provides several pages at the end of the book of discussion of the circumstances of when she took the pictures, and how they came to be taken.  Most of the photographs are in black and white.  The pages are 12.7" x 10.6", and so provide much greater detail than the small images on the Internet.  (The book is about an inch thick, and my paperback review copy had the cover come away from the main body of the book after I had been flipping through the pages over a number of days.  The hardcover version should be more durable.)  Browsing through this collection is fascinating and disturbing. 

Mark's photographs tend to emphasize the bizarre and unsettling parts of life.  There's a dark humor to some of them, and a terrible seriousness to others.  "Heroin Addict, London, Great Britain, 1969" shows a teenage boy through the window in a door, leaning against a wall, holding a syringe into his arm.  The boy seems to be looking at something out of the view of the camera, unconcerned that he is being photographed.  "Roland Riley Pulling His Cat's Whiskers, Belfast, Maine, USA, 1990," shows a rather pudgy boy with a limp and very long suffering cat under his arm, pulling the cat's whiskers.  The boy looks straight at the camera, apparently showing Mark how tolerant his cat is.  In the background is a dark and messy room.  "Twelve-Year-Old Lata Lying in Bed, Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978" is in color, and shows a young girl with only a green skirt and some jewelry on, sprawled on a dingy mattress in a tiny room just big enough for a bed, staring up and the camera.  We see she is a prostitute, and is presumably waiting for her next customer.  "Dancing Woman, Senior Citizen's Center, Miami Beach, Florida, 1979" is also in color; it shows an older woman with blonde hair, large black round spectacles, a white and yellow dress that comes down just below her knees, white socks, and black beach shoes.  She is captured in motion, her hands above her head, fingers clicking, her legs slightly parted, her weight on her left foot, and her right foot slightly raised.  It's the sort of position one would expect to see a little girl in.  She stands alone, in front of a dark curtain, with a bulky old juke box to her side. 

So Mark's style is to catch the attention with shocking or surprising subject matter, and then lead the viewer think about the issues raised by the image.  Sometimes, Mark seems to verge in participating in the exploitation of the disempowered: for example, some of the pictures from the Indian circus feel a little as if Mark is showing us a freak show, and some of her images of Americans make them look pathetic and ridiculous.  The image of the "Dancing Woman" mentioned above is one example, and "Tom Bartlett and Todd Luxton, Elvis Presley Impersonators, Imperial Palace Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 2004," is similarly problematic.  Others from her Twins series will also make the viewer feel uncomfortable, since the eerie effect depends on the fact that the oddness of each person is doubled by the fact that they are with their twin.  Reading her accompanying text will help to assure the viewer that Mark's intends to be sympathetic to her subjects.  One might interpret one's discomfort on viewing some of these pictures as highlighting not Mark's exploitation of her subjects, but rather the problematic assumptions that viewers themselves bring to understanding what they are seeing.

It is Mark's popular sensibility that leads to the possibility of worries about commercialism; her work has been featured in magazines such as Time, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, and her ability to find an angle and a moment producing a gripping image makes her work very appealing, even when the people she is photographing are in awful circumstances.  Mark's work raises not only ethical questions about the condition of the world, but also about how to portray the suffering of people, and this is one of the features of her approach that makes her so interesting. 





© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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