Yesterday yielded some opportunities to look, listen, and learn from Mark Ellen Mark a phenomenal photojournalist and portraitist.
Around lunchtime I attended a taping of local PBS station KLRU’s program Texas Monthly Talks with host Evan Smith. Evan is a great interviewer and the experience was more like eavesdropping on a conversation between two very intelligent people than the taping of a TV show. Their conversation ranged over many topics including a project Mary Ellen did for Texas Monthly on small town rodeos in the early 1990s. Mary Ellen shoots only film and does not retouch her work – in her words “it is authentic”. While she appreciates images taken with digital cameras, she considers them a different medium and bemoaned how many images are altered. These she described as illustrations and not photographs. She also talked about how the marketplace and business of photography has changed so much. Some of her seminal earlier work such as the Falklands Road project about prostitutes in India was funded as photo stories by major publications and sponsors. She spent 3 months in India working on this (only one of many projects she has done in that country), but such work is unavailable today as magazines don’t have the budget and perhaps even the appetite for such work. These days she takes commercial jobs that help her self-fund her own projects such as photos of High School Proms (not yet published), which will include images from Austin’s very own Westlake High School.
In the evening, I attended the inaugural Austin Center for Photography event where Mary Ellen spoke and showed a panoply of images from her vast repertoire. Her photographs from “Seen Behind the Scene” taken on the sets of numerous feature films over the last 40 years were amazing – a favorite of mine is the image of Felini on the set of Satyricon in Rome in 1969. Getting this was sheer luck as she described it – she shot one frame, but everything just came together. This is probably her most purchased image. The evening ended with a short, funny movie “Twins” made by her husband Martin Bell and featuring identical twins with all their idiosyncrasies, a subject of one of Mary Ellen’s books.
With a career more than 4 decades long and 17 published books, Mark Ellen shows no sign of slowing down. Her imagery, passion, and intelligence are an inspiration.