All Essays Masters of Photography Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark | What She Taught Me

Mary Ellen Mark passed away last week. She was absolutely one of a kind.

If you have not already, I urge you to go read the many articles and tributes pouring in from writers and artists and her peers.

Her love of teaching has sadly been ignored by the media. It was this personal touch with many of us that made her rise above the ranks of legendary photographers into a legendary mentor, affecting and changing an entire generation of photographers and artists.

The lessons I learned in the short time I spent with her, one travel workshop and one weekend workshop, have stuck with me and I am remember her words clearly like a bell. I can clearly see her influence on me in my proof sheets. She gave me so much in such a short time. I deeply regret not taking more advantage of her openness and giving nature.

I honestly do not know of anyone that could possibly fill the empty space that she left in the world.

Here are the links to her Oaxaca Workshop that provide an extensive breakdown of my experience with her:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

And here is the crux of what she taught me, the lessons and goals I have each time I bring the camera up to my eye.

What I learned from Mary Ellen Mark and Think of Every Time I Shoot

These were the points from her quick appraisal of my initial portfolio review to start the workshop:

  • My portraits are stronger
  • I have too much noise in my street work
  • I am losing the graphic elements and strongly designed frames of my portraits in my street work
  • I need to add a 28mm to my suite of gear (I only shoot with a 35mm on the streets)

As she was going through my photos and making her selects, I had some of my own revelations:

  • My street photos have become very literal, very straightforward
  • I record and capture now more than I create, especially on the street
  • My portraits reflect me controlling a situation and creating and the result is very different
  • Because my candid street shooting has been my priority, I have been solely focused with the ability to get close to people and fire off that shot, in focus and properly exposed. In other words, speed and closeness have trumped other values
  • I have lost the lyrical, weird, quirky aesthetic to my work, qualities that I used to have years ago
  • There is a surreal, disconcerting to many of Mary Ellen’s images that I have always loved. I have never been a very strong surrealist and it is time to incorporate this quality into my work if I can

Mary Ellen’s Tasks for Me

The charge I received from Mary Ellen was simple and was repeated almost daily to me:

  • Stop being safe
  • Put my lens in different places
  • Be bold
  • Be conscious of everything in the frame
  • Reduce the background noise
  • Compose with strong graphic elements
  • Take risks

I will do my best to honor her by doing great and meaningful work, to not suffer fools, to keep pushing in everything, and to keep shooting film.

Thank you, Mary Ellen. It was a blessing to spend time with you.

Mary Ellen Mark taking me to task during a morning proof sheet review

Mary Ellen Mark taking me to task during a morning proof sheet review

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