Epic cinema seen through the camera lens

An exhibition in Madrid is showing the work of photographer Mary Ellen Mark Federico Fellini, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson are among her subjects

Dennis Hopper, in a photo taken by Mary Ellen Mark during the shooting of Apocalypse Now in 1976.
Dennis Hopper, in a photo taken by Mary Ellen Mark during the shooting of Apocalypse Now in 1976.EL PAÍS

"At this point I can only see in black and white," explains legendary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who sat before a coffee and what's left of a pastry. She is in Madrid to give a workshop at the international photography school PHotoEspaña Alcobendas, and to inaugurate on Friday an exhibition in cultural space La Fábrica featuring a selection of some of her best-known shots from the world of cinema.

For years this slight woman, who wears her hair in long black braids, spent her time capturing some of the best-known images of giants of the film world, such as Federico Fellini, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Luis Buñuel and Dustin Hoffman. But her work stretches beyond just the shooting of movie sets such as those of Apocalypse Now or Tristana, and also includes photographic investigations of street children, prostitutes on the streets of India, traveling circuses and identical twins.

Mary Ellen Mark with Marlon Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now, in a photo taken by Stefani Kong Uhler.
Mary Ellen Mark with Marlon Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now, in a photo taken by Stefani Kong Uhler.

"I don't know if I could do those jobs now; the relationship with the camera has changed so much...," she explains. "Here in Madrid I'm going to ask my students for three things: that they do a self-portrait, which is very difficult; that they do a portrait of someone close to them of their choosing; and that they don't bring me a single image taken with their cellphone. Instagram is completely banned."

The photographer points at the closest cellphone and explains: "We cannot confuse communication with photography. Nor privacy with photography. New technology is killing the mystery, and the process is being lost. There are lots of magazines these days, but the reality is that there is not a single magazine. No one wants to go into any depth anymore. With young people, I try to help them without being a pain, but at the same time always being honest. That's why I always say that it's really hard to take a good photo, and that not everyone can do so because it's even more difficult to develop a point of view, and then to defend it."

She defends her own point of view without raising her voice, but she does so tooth and nail. Mary Ellen Mark refuses to work with digital cameras and without the resources and time that she needs. She offers another piece of advice, in an extremely affable manner: "When you take a photo the presence of another person is just as important as your own presence. You need to know how to be there, with confidence. Make them respect you, and don't let them see your fear. The fact is, talking about celebrities, films were different before - they were made in a different way. Now a movie is shot in front of a green screen, with the director glued to the video monitor. There are too many filters, too many publicists, too many people. That's not to say that the actors are any less interesting, but that the access to them has changed. They left me alone, so I could be anywhere, stealing gestures. I was a familiar presence and they trusted me."

She refuses to work with digital cameras and without the time that she needs

When asked if Marlon Brando was one of the most keen to be snapped, she lets fly a hoot of derision. "You're kidding! Fellini was much worse than Brando! Fellini loved to pose! It was incredible! Actors are very easy to take photos of. They are just doing their job, they're so good looking and they know best how to look at the camera. And then there was Dennis Hopper, of course, who carried all kinds of tragedies in his face and was not at all bothered about showing them. He was completely without inhibitions. He was fantastic to photograph."

Mary Ellen Mark, pictured this week in Madrid.
Mary Ellen Mark, pictured this week in Madrid.GORKA LEJARCEGI (EL PAÍS)

And, of course, a photographer himself.

"Yes, there are many actors who want to be photographers," she explains. "In fact, I have struck up friendships with some of them thanks to photography. Did you know that Jeff Bridges is really good? He's the best I know with a 35-milimeter Widelux, a panoramic camera that he has mastered like no one else I know. He's really good - the best."

Mark explains that her love for the circus comes from Fellini, which is why she followed the old traveling circuses after finishing her photos of the prostitutes on Falkland Road in India.

In 2012, she published her last project: it was about adolescents on the day of their graduation dance. Now she is raising funds so that she can go back and photograph a prostitute, who she took pictures of years ago.

Luis Buñuel (r) on the set of Tristana, photographed by Mark.
Luis Buñuel (r) on the set of Tristana, photographed by Mark.

Thinking about the passage of time sees her gaze return to the small cellphone that is on the table, just next to her coffee. "Let me go back to the subject of the internet - it has changed everything," she says, in reference to the popularity of camera apps such as Instagram. "People don't know what they're doing, even though they are doing it all the time. There is no point of view; this is all just about communicating, about sending messages, about revealing our privacy..." She continues: "Before you could transcend, you could create something epic from the stars or the street. I am resisting any change - a long time ago I decided that I would only do what I want to do."

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