Friday, April 18, 2014

Mary Ellen Mark on Man and Beast

"I wish that the nature of Man were better."Mary Ellen Mark. 

This excerpt from Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India features Mary Ellen Mark in conversation with Melissa Harris, editor-in-chief of Aperture Foundation, and Martin Bell, Mark's husband, former politician, and British UNICEF Ambassador. Mary Ellen Mark discusses her interest in photographing animals, her experiences creating the powerful images in her new book, the differences between 'Man' and 'Beast,' and how beasts can teach us to be better as humans.

Melissa Harris opens Man and Beast with this revealing insight into the internationally acclaimed photographer's personal philosophy behind her images of man and beast. View spreads from the book here, and buy the book for the full interview. 

Join us at The Wittliff Collections on Sunday, April 27, at 2pm for an exhibition reception, artist talk, and book signing with Mary Ellen Mark in attendance. Find out more about the event here.

MEM and Beast 

In December 2002 I found myself walking across Washington Square Park with my then-one-year-old Lhasa Apso, Ella, who was (reluctantly) wearing a fuzzy, bubblegum-pink boa—part of a ballerina outfit for children (although Ella would have no part of the tutu—just too demeaning, given her roots as a Tibetan palace guard dog). It was during that walk that I began to fully comprehend Mary Ellen Mark’s kooky, intense, and committed love affair with dogs. Ella and I were headed to Mary Ellen’s annual “Doggy Christmas Party.” Fifty to sixty dogs of friends and colleagues poured into her SoHo studio, both to attend the bash and to have their portraits taken. Sometimes at the party there are themes or props or backdrops or characters (an unfortunate soul dressed as the Statue of Liberty, for example, who posed with the dubious dogs)—but this year it was more or less simply about “festive attire,” hence the boa. I placed Ella on the platform for the shoot, whispering sweet “Sits” in her ear, until the time came for me to sidle away, as Mary Ellen prepared to photograph her. But Mary Ellen was not yet convinced by the composition, so she called to Ella to move “stage right” and “upstage,” along with other, non-doggy directions. Just an instant before Ella, overwhelmed, bolted decisively with cheetah-like agility, Mary Ellen made the portrait, which perfectly captures Ella’s funny imperiousness.

Mary Ellen becomes deeply invested in many of her subjects—sometimes knowing and photographing them over the course of many years, as she did with Erin Charles (a.k.a. Tiny, of the 1980s project Streetwise), and with the Damms, a homeless family that Mary Ellen photographed many times. There is often a performative or interactive element to the photographs, whether they are of twins, prom-goers, or street children, whether she is on the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico, where she teaches workshops each year, or at a horse farm in Connecticut or a circus in Calcutta, or photographing dogs—pretty much everywhere.

Mary Ellen’s sense of dogs’ unconditional love is matched only by her belief that beasts are, unlike man, rarely if ever gratuitously cruel. This understanding infuses Mary Ellen’s images with an unsentimental poignancy and a fully intentional anthropomorphism that, while sometimes ironic and other times unsettling, always render photographs that are remarkably engaging and winning.

— Melissa Harris, New York City, January 2013 

Mary Ellen Mark: I like animals you can relate to. And it’s interesting to observe them in their roles with people.

One of the things that fascinates me most about the circus is the relationship between the performers and the trained animals—how they depend on each other for life and for work. I know the animal-rights people are going to hate this, and I understand there is a concern about how circus animals are treated, but I myself didn’t see abuse—with only one exception. The animal trainers need the animals to survive, so they must treat them extremely well to make sure they are happy and in good health, and often there is a bond between them.

I also respect most animals, because they can kill you! I’ve never been attacked by an animal, but especially in the circus, I was careful. Although I did go in the cage with the lions in India. I felt I couldn’t get a strong picture without being in the cage with them. Martin was in the cage, too. We were in the cage with twelve lions. That was frightening.

The trainer was in there, but he was a macho jerk. He smacked one lion—on the nose—to show off, which was a terrible thing to watch. The lion was so hurt that he jumped off the stool and started to run around the cage. We were just standing there, and Martin said, “Don’t move!” The lion was bewildered and angry, and he was running around and running around—completely out of control. And there we were, just standing there. It was very scary. The trainer just wanted to show off, and he whipped him. It was horrible. We have the footage. We’ve never shown it because it is so disturbing. This guy was actually cruel—he was a cruel man. But he was unusual. Usually the trainers are not at all like that. . . . Mostly they depend on the animals. It’s their livelihood; they have to treat the animal well. And, also, they love the animal.

Melissa Harris: Do they?

MEM: Yes, they do love the animal. And they need the animal. They can’t survive without it. And those animals are very expensive; they can’t replace them. They have to be in good health. Trainers are very stupid if they treat the animal badly, because the animal can kill them, especially with an animal like an elephant. Elephants are very smart and sensitive. You have to be really respectful.

Chimpanzees bite. You can’t trust chimps. One bit Martin. And, not only did it bite him—that chimp held a grudge against him! So the rest of the time we were shooting, the chimp looked for him. The trainer said, “I neglected to tell you that this chimp was trained in Germany, and he hates fair men. He hates them.” Martin, what was the name of the chimp that bit you?

Martin Bell: Shiva. 

MEM: So every time Shiva came out to perform, he was looking for Martin in the audience. We were there with [the novelist] John Irving this time, and every time the chimp would escape we’d say, “Where’s John?” And then we’d find John, standing there with a chair in his hand! 

Melissa Harris: So John Irving wasn’t convinced about the chimp.

MEM: No. That chimp was really dangerous. And another one bit me—a female chimp named Mira—I think because she was jealous. I shook hands with her trainer, and she was very jealous.

MH: So she bit you?

MEM: Well, I went to thank her trainer after I took her portrait with him; in the portrait his arm is around her. I shook his hand, and said, “Thank you so much.” And the chimp looked at me and then she bit my hand.

The following year I came back to the same circus, and the trainer said to me, “Go and say hello to Mira. I’m sure she has forgiven you.” So I went up to her cage—she was in a training cage, which was quite large. I put my arm in to shake her hand. She looked at me. Then she ran to the back of the cage and she took this stance. And I thought, “Oh my God, she’s charging me!” I quickly pulled my arm out, just in time. . . . I never went around her again. She was really angry with me. She hadn’t forgotten. They don’t forget.

Another chimp I was very close to was named Raja. I loved Raja. Raja remembered me. I photographed Raja as a baby, and he remembered me when I came back. He loved me. I would go to his cage every day and give him a kiss, and he’d kiss me. The trainer said I was crazy, because he was huge—he looked like a gorilla. But he remembered me.

When I was leaving the circus, Raja knew I was going. He was so smart. The trainer said, “He’s been a bad boy today; you can’t go and say good-bye.” But Raja started to cry, so I went anyway to say good-bye. He died a couple of weeks later. Chimps don’t live long in captivity. Raja was only in his twenties.

Really, nothing compares with the Indian circus. I’ve thought about doing a major project on the Mexican circus—it’s charming—but the Indian circus is much more strange and magical. The Mexican circus is too influenced by commercialism, whereas the Indian circus is so much more original. It reminds me of Fellini. Every day we were presented with all these incredible experiences.

MH: With Man and Beast, what’s the nature of Man these days?

MEM: I wish that the nature of Man were better. I always think the nature of Beasts is better than the nature of Man. It’s more pure, more honest. Beast is more honest than Man. Man is more deceitful, unfortunately.

MH: When you take pictures of animals, what are you setting out to do?

MEM: My goal is different from Nick’s [Michael “Nick” Nichols, natural history photographer] 
in the sense that I’m looking for an anthropomorphic side to them. Trying to show the “Man” in animals. 

MH: And what is that?

MEM: Well, I’m trying to connect as a human being to what an animal is like. It’s not like a human being at all, though; it’s part of my fantasy. What really interested me so much in the Indian circus is that it’s so much about the anthropomorphic side of animals, like “Dr. Elephant.” Where else would you see a “Dr. Elephant”?

MH: Well—the anthropomorphic side is what we determine, or read into their behavior, or force upon the animals. It’s not really innate, is it? Continuing on the anthropomorphic track, is this ever demoralizing for the animal, from your perspective?

MEM: I know I’m reading things into the animals’ behavior, but on the other hand, their relationships, their roles with the humans in their lives are real—and sometimes, it’s just so touching. . . . I photographed a female elephant who rides in the U.S.A.’s UniverSoul Circus. That elephant looks so sad to me—it’s sad that it’s trapped in the circus, that it’s not out in the wild. I love elephants.

MH: So you’re exploring the emotional life of elephants?

MEM: Well, again I’m reading that idea into it. . . . Maybe the elephant is sad because he wants a peanut! I don’t know. It’s just that you’re looking, trying to read a certain emotion or narrative into it to get a great photograph. Like with the chimp Mira, when she had her arm around her trainer—I was trying to show that she was in love with him . . .

MH: But we don’t know what love means for a chimp.

MEM: No, we don’t. We do know that he feeds her.

MH: Are children and animals similar to photograph?

MEM: There’s an innocence sometimes in children, which is similar in animals. But I rarely look for the innocence. Children are “Man.” They can be very cruel. They’re little people, after all. That’s what I try to look for in children. I’m looking for the anthropomorphic things in animals. But I think in children I’m looking . . .

MH: . . . for the Beast?

MEM: Exactly. I look at children as just regular . . . as tiny humans. So I’m looking for the things they do that reveal their true nature.

MH: If you could be any animal, what would you be?

MEM: Oh, gosh. Well, I don’t know that I’d want to be a dog. . . . It would be nice to fly.

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